Stopping the Iron Snake

The Iron Snake, a film by Clifton Arihwakehte Nicolas, is thought provoking and frightening in its content. The footage of the tar sands and pipeline operation evokes an emotional response to the devastation that has created a scar on mother earth that can be viewed from space with the naked eye. Closer to home, the speakers who appeared in this film conveyed clearly what is already happening to us a result of this mammoth operation.

The time for simply warning of dire consequences has passed. The effects of the tar sands have already arrived. As the oil flows, the lives of our brothers and sisters flow away with it. Contained within our culture was a vast store of knowledge and wisdom learned through countless generations of living, learning and observation of the natural order, all the while stepping quietly on the land. Passed down through the generations was the deep understanding of the connection of the people to the land.

The deliberate attempts at destroying indigenous culture have left it fragmented and in tatters. And yet, while much of the ancient knowledge has been lost, there remains a deliberate determination, resilience and resolve among us. For nothing has changed in our understanding that what happens to the land also happens to us. An environment whose water is poisoned cannot support a healthy people anywhere.

Big business in partnership with government continues to operate with an air of arrogance and impunity fueled by unending greed that drains our mother’s resources. The promise that economic development will bring much needed jobs and money is an empty promise and temporary at best when there is no clean land left to live on. When government and big business together work with a disregard for the lives of the people they touch, they are acting “without conscience”.

Arihwakehte’s film provides an Indigenous perspective on the impact of the tar sands, and the pipelines or “iron snakes” that crisscross the land. As he stated, “This film was made to be used as a tool to fight against the energy east pipeline project. The goal of this film was to give a platform for the voices who are fighting against dirty tar sands oil and the expansion of an already disastrous resource extraction. I want Indigenous people to watch the film and hopefully work with those who oppose these pipelines and the tar sands.”

What was clear from this film is that the debate is not if a mega disaster in the form of a rupture will occur, but that it is a matter of when and where it will occur. With the antiquated Line 9 being forced to operate in a way it was never designed for (by accepting corrosive tar sands oil) the probability of an “accident” is greatly increased.

The movie also brought home the point that there appears to be no methodology in place when disaster occurs. Big corporations and the government do have an answer, it is to put aside “slush fund” money to buy up land and homes of people who will be displaced by the spill. This is factored in to the costs of the project. Slush funds do not contain morals or ethics or feelings of any kind. They are a simple legal manoeuvre that once paid absolves the wrong doer of any further responsibility and allows them to walk away with no further obligation – leaving behind poisoned water, a polluted land, and suffering and sickness in all its forms.

For more years than can be counted our people have fought to have their voices heard, it is shameful that it has taken a crisis of this dimension to make us heard.

The damage done by the tar sands cannot be undone, only stopped. Watching Arihwakehte’s film the Iron Snake (available free on YouTube at is a necessary first step for those wanting to learn more about why these projects must be stopped.

Paulette Villebrun is a long time Plains Cree activist from Winnipeg, Manitoba.

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