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  • Water Policy in Alberta:Settler-Colonialism, Community, and Capital
  • Jeremy J. Schmidt (bio)

In February 2011, Helen Ingram resigned from a high-level panel that had been created to establish a "world-class environmental monitoring system" for Alberta's massive bitumen extraction industry—the oil sands or tar sands. In Canada, Dr. Ingram's resignation was national news. Major outlets like The Globe and Mail (Wingrove 2011) and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (McIntosh 2011) recounted her concerns regarding how few scientists were on the panel and how confidentiality clauses created barriers to engagement with indigenous peoples. To opponents of Alberta's extractive resource sector, it was yet another blow to provincial credibility (see, generally, Black et al. 2014). In the years prior to the panel's creation, several scientific studies had revealed serious flaws in Alberta's environmental monitoring system (e.g., Kelly et al. 2009, 2010). And barely a month before the panel was announced, Alberta's Regional Aquatic Monitoring Program (RAMP) had been excoriated for its inability to detect regional or cumulative effects of oil sands activities, to establish baseline data, or to collect and compare data for environmental impact assessments (Burn et al. 2011). In this context, Rob Renner, the Alberta government's minister of environment, announced the 12-member expert panel to enhance the credibility and legitimacy of governmental oversight of the oil sands. Yet the composition of the panel, which included several prominent industry figures and a former advisor to Canada's pro-oil-sands prime minister, Stephen Harper, was criticized as a token political gesture that was unlikely to yield substantive change.

For scholars, Dr. Ingram's resignation can be read in different ways. It is a clarion example of her commitment to ensuring rigor, equity, and fairness in the institutions and policies governing water (see Ingram et al. 1986, Ingram and Oggins 1992). However, it also opens interesting questions about Alberta's longer history of wielding international [End Page 204] expertise in water policy. Pursuing the latter, this article takes its cue from Schneider and Ingram's (1993) argument that the "social construction of target populations" is an oft-overlooked aspect of how cultural norms, shared metaphors, and common stories affect policy design in ways that advantage certain groups and disadvantage others. Indeed, those groups disadvantaged through policy design have been central to Dr. Ingram's concerns with how subaltern networks sustain themselves through alternative narratives (Ingram et al. 2015, Lejano et al. 2013). These joint concerns—with the official (social) construction of target populations and the persistence of alternatives under (often) disadvantaged conditions—help to situate Dr. Ingram's resignation. In short, the co-production of power and knowledge through expert networks and the effects of those networks on those who are marginalized due to policy design are precisely what must weigh on considerations of how academic expertise intersects with governance institutions (see also Ingram 2008, Brugnach and Ingram 2012).

This paper examines two eras of water policy in Alberta in order to identify how policy design has structured the recognition of "target populations." The first made water instrumental to a social construction of the political community that served the Canadian project of western settlement. The second shifted from constructions of the "community" toward a combination of water markets and shared governance—a deployment of economic and cultural capital that displaced efforts to revisit political questions regarding for whom water should be managed. In both eras, Alberta drew on international experiences and expertise in ways that established and entrenched state claims. The article uses material from archives, legislative debates, and court documents to show how both eras structurally marginalized indigenous claims to water. Pace settler-colonial structures of dispossession in Canada (see Coulthard 2014, Simpson 2014, Harris 2002), the shift from community to capital co-produced a "target population" that continuously aligned water policy with land policies that excluded, though did not extinguish, indigenous claims to water in Alberta.

Alberta's Imagined Water Community

Between 1857 and 1859, John Palliser led a survey of western Canada to assess its economic prospects on behalf of British interests. When he arrived in present-day southern Alberta, Palliser (1860) described it...


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