Planning for Persistent Environmental Contamination: Public Health, Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, and Technoscience in Canada

Planning for Persistent Environmental Contamination: Public Health, Indigenous Traditional Knowledge, and Technoscience in Canada

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Gladys Scott and Margery Rowbotham testing oil and gas samples at the Alberta Research Council, January 13, 1959. Library and Archives of Canada, MIKAN 4365726.

Gladys Scott and Margery Rowbotham testing oil and gas samples at the Alberta Research Council, January 13, 1959. Library and Archives of Canada, MIKAN 4365726.

The Canadian oil industry operates predominantly on First Nations treaty lands using in situ methods of bitumen extraction to feed an insatiable global appetite for oil, resulting in environmental contamination on an immense scale. The nature of this contamination of groundwater, plants, animals, and human health in northern Alberta remains contested. This industrial site has been extracting bitumen from a geographical area larger than 79,000 km2 since 1967, yet the scientific knowledge produced about the health and environmental effects of this industry in the last 49 years has been largely industry-sponsored and has not allocated epistemic space for Indigenous Traditional Knowledge about the consequences of industrial contamination for animals, plants, soil, waterways, and human health.

Through an inquiry into the historical and present-day dynamics among actors engaged with knowledge production connecting landscape, human health, geology and oil extraction in Canada, this project examines the fluctuating ways that science relates to knowledge practices that challenge its otherwise stable norms and paradigms. How has the Canadian federal government balanced its duty to protect people living on treaty lands from the risks posed by industrial development and the inevitable environmental contamination that follows? While industrial development and the health of citizens affected by environmental contamination remain disparate concerns for many governments, the Canadian case allows for the exploration of the linkages between these concerns.

This project aims to develop a way of seeing industrial planning, environmental planning, and planning for Indigenous health together in an entangled form, rather than as three disparate strands of governmental policy. In one of its case studies, this project draws attention to the way that the public health campaigns have been mobilized to enact their own planning in laying the epistemological groundwork for the persistence of environmental contamination. With this groundwork laid, industrial projects can proceed despite the risks they pose for human and non-human health; though these projects are known to cause harm, the onus of prevention is placed upon the behaviour of those at risk, thus alleviating government responsibility and creating the conditions under which development can proceed with an air of irreproachability.