Fearful Chip residents stay out of the waterPosted: August 27, 2008
Carol Christian, August 23, 2008, Fort McMurray Today -- The water glistens off Lake Athabasca in the hot afternoon sun.
Boisterous youngsters play, while others stroll the banks of the ancient river, yet no one tempts the beckoning waters to cool overheated skin.
They’re too afraid.
It was at the Keepers of the Water: Water is Boss conference this past weekend where people voiced their concerns about water contamination thanks to the upstream oilsands, and shared their stories of disease and the loss of their traditional way of life. For others, including the 18 environmental groups attending, it was a chance to learn about and see Fort Chip first-hand, the community immediately downstream from the multi-billion dollar oilsands industry. Six translation stations (Sioux, Dene, North and South Slavey, Cree and DogRib) were available so elders from the various First Nation bands could understand what was being said. Aboriginal peoples (First Nations and Métis) travelled from across Alberta, British Columbia. Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon to attend the conference hosted in Fort Chip.
The conference is the third in a series working to build a protective strategy. A fourth conference is planned for next year in Saskatchewan.
Talk of cancers and auto-immune disease was common, as were repeated calls such as that of keynote speaker Dr. John O’Connor for a baseline health study. O’Connor, the area doctor, garnered international headlines in 2006 as a whistleblower for publicly discussing the high incidence of such diseases. The study is wanted to determine once and for all if the water is safe.
Dr. Kevin Timoney’s independent study found levels of arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, known carcinogens, are not only dangerously high north of oilsands sites, but are quickly rising.
A pall was cast over the last day of the conference with the arrival of a casket carrying the body of Maryanne Wanderingspirit home for burial after losing her battle to cancer.
Lionel Lepine of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said her death shouldn’t have happened.
The 93-year-old lived the traditional way of life, recalled Lepine, getting sustenance off the land and from the water. He wondered how many more people have to die needlessly.
He accused the oilsands companies of not seeing Fort Chipewyan residents as human beings — only as First Nations, people they just have to talk to before they rip up the land.
Lepine even went so far as to say that if the water flow was reversed, carrying any contaminants south, something would have been done by now because the oil companies wouldn’t let this happen to “their people.”
“These are real lives we’re talking about,” said Steve Courtoreille, when speaking of his 18-year-old nephew Grant Courtoreille, who died in January of cancer.
He recalled Grant’s doctor being unable to determine what caused the teen’s cancer, yet saying he wouldn’t be moving his family to the oilsands any time soon.
In front of a photo of Grant was a piece of art created by local resident Trevor Michaels depicting a pair of hands covered in oil emerging from the lake. It asked, “How many barrels of oil is my life worth to you?” Michael’s mother, who lives in Fort Chip, has been diagnosed with cancer. His grandmother, aunt and uncle have died from the disease.
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam said industry and government are too close, citing Premier Ed Stelmach’s recent $25-million campaign promoting the oilsands. He reminded the diverse audience his band withdrew from the Cumulative Environmental Management Association and the Regional Aquatics Monitoring Program because they were treated unfairly. To get the Athabasca Chipewyan back to the table, the requirement is “be true to us.” Adam added the community would also want full disclosure of environmental impacts instead of being denied so-called “proprietary” documents.
“We owe it to the land,” said Adam. “You have to change your ways, and what’s happening to Fort Chip.” He added people are wrong if they think it’s only oil and gas.
Mike Mercredi said youths in Fort Chip are scared to swim in the lakes they did as children or eat the foods they were raised on.
“That fear is there,” he stressed. “They’re the ones that are going to have to face the consequences.” Mercredi added area youths are angry and frustrated, ready to take action.
“It’s about our very lives,” he said. “We’re facing slow industrial genocide. We’re going to fight a good fight, “ he said, urging the community to fight government and industry and receiving a standing ovation for his words.
Adam also received a standing ovation when he announced a unanimously approved resolution calling for aboriginal unity in protecting the water and their traditional way of life.
Lawyer Vivienne Bisel, who was approached in the spring to explore the possibility of litigation as a way to assert First Nations water rights, said clean drinking water is a treaty right, as is the right to traditional and modern livelihood.
Bisel, along with Monique Passalec-Ross of the Canadian Institute of Resources Law, said consultations are problematic, as government and industry prefer to manage them by delegating the process to project proponents. Also, it was noted there is a proposal for First Nations to do their own environmental impact assessments, which would also include oral negotiations, because there is nothing in the current process to protect First Nations rights. The Energy Resources Conservation Board process is a general one, not specific to those rights.
“I was very moved as many were by the emotion and concern about people’s heath and their future,” said Liberal MLA and environment critic David Swann. “Clearly government and many observers don’t get the spiritual connection First Nations have with the land. Scientific reassurances just don’t wash when they have experienced such dramatic cultural, economic, social and environmental change in this last decade particularly.
“You can’t argue with smells and tastes, and a way of life that has been so dramatically changed, and the knowledge that science is way behind in terms of measuring impacts of long-term, low dose exposures to multiple chemicals.”
Swann called requests for a moratorium on development reasonable. “When we know that these elements going into the environment are fundamentally toxic to living systems, it is imminently reasonable to ask them to stop expanding while we get some of these baseline indicators and monitoring systems set up."