Oil Sands Energy Governance: An Ethnography on Negotiating Development and Indigenous Rights in Northern Alberta
Wheatley, Katherine 1993-
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Alberta’s oil sands constitute one of the largest and most contentious industrial extraction sites of our time. While the ecological and geopolitical effects of extraction in northern Alberta attract global attention, the local politics of energy development are relatively understudied. This ethnographic research deepens understanding of the processes of energy governance in Alberta. Based in Fort McMurray, at the heart of the oil sands, I employed institutional ethnography to investigate the changing political processes and social negotiations that surround energy extraction in northern Alberta. My anthropological research was based in the Mikisew Cree First Nation Government and Industry Relations Office. Mikisew has navigated a variety of legal and political spaces to protect their treaty and Aboriginal rights, and to enhance their self-determination. From May to September 2017, I engaged in participant observation, open-ended interviews, document and policy analysis, and a focus group. The body of my thesis comprises three chapters, which investigate: • The shifting landscape of energy governance in northern Alberta, highlighting emergent trends such as regulatory capture and engagement-oriented reforms. • The changing strategies espoused by Indigenous communities in the oil sands to defend their rights and interests, and more specifically, Mikisew’s political mobilization. • Mikisew’s experience advocating at UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee. I argue that while attempts are being made to enhance the participatory capacity of energy governance in northern Alberta, resource extraction in the region is managed by a relatively closed community of experts, resulting in the discounting of Indigenous voices and rights. In order to combat the traditionally closed practice of energy governance in Alberta, Indigenous mobilization has become increasingly sophisticated, growing in capacity and complexity. Mobilization strategies primarily comprise litigation, government consultation, industry negotiation processes, and advocacy. These strategies are strategically pursued and deployed in contextually dependent manners. The imperative of reconciling Indigenous rights, environmental sustainability, and Canada’s energy needs is ever increasing. Critical social research helps elucidate these trade-offs, as well as the manners in which Alberta’s governance regimes negotiate the costs and benefits of oil sands extraction. My participatory research illuminates current shortcomings in the management of energy extraction in northern Alberta, while exploring the current realities of Indigenous political mobilization. Shedding light on the governance of Alberta’s oil sands region will help foster sustainable and equitable development in Canada.
DegreeMaster of Arts (M.A.)
DepartmentArchaeology and Anthropology
CommitteeWestman, Clinton N.; Natcher, David C.; Loring, Philip A.; Kennedy, Margaret; Deonandan, Kalowatie
Copyright DateSeptember 2018