First Nations communities prepare for battle over water, culturePosted: August 27, 2008
Carol Christian, August 20, 2008, Fort McMurray Today -- It was a weekend of concerns over unnecessary death and pain, but also of hope, praise and planning.
And when the doors closed on the Keepers of the River: Water is Boss conference, First Nations communities united in an unprecedented move, preparing for a David and Goliath fight in protecting their culture and traditional way of life.
The leaders of the more than 12 aboriginal communities represented unanimously approved a resolution “to take all steps in our power to protect our lands, sustain our communities and assert our rights.”
The resolution, to be passed on to government, outlined the leaders’ belief the pace of development in their territories is unsustainable and “are deeply concerned that governments are permitting development to proceed without our consent.”
The leaders resolved to initiate legal action to assert their rights, build unity in the communities, and work in solidarity with organizations that support their goals.
When the resolution was read out, it was greeted with a standing ovation from a diverse audience that included leaders, elders and others from across Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and the N.W.T. — further signalling the scope of unity.
“There is going to be unified resistance to industry and government about the way they proceed with development throughout the whole region,” said Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam. “The First Nations have unified under one common goal: to work hand in hand with the NGOs (non-government organizations) and the general public to move forward on the basis that water is the key element resources that sustains all life and we have no other choice but to protect the water issue and further destruction of the land that provides our well-being.”
The conference was hosted by Adam’s community of Fort Chipewyan, an aboriginal community gaining worldwide attention for concerns around about several incidences of rare cancers and auto-immune disorders some have linked to contamination from oilsands operations upstream.
An independent report released last year by Dr. Kevin Timoney showed elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a known carcinogen. Industry and government maintain the water is safe.
The constant themes of the weekend were lack of consultation by industry and government with aboriginal communities, a call for unity of action and fear, fear of what was in the Athabasca River and what the future held for the traditional way of life. Many Aboriginal people continue to follow that way of life, gaining their subsistence from the land and water.
A fish with a second mouth caught earlier in the week was displayed at the conference Sunday, prompting one leader to challenge the presidents of Suncor Energy and Syncrude Canada to eat it.
A band councilor from the N.W.T., who recovered from a non-cancerous brain tumour in 2002, said no matter how much money oil companies donate to cancer research, the water will never be pure again. He added something has to be done no,w otherwise what’s happening in Fort Chip will start happening in northern communities such as Fort Smith.
“Our people will be dying too,” said the councillor.
During one of his weekend presentations, Adam said the communities need to build the coalition to protect the water and environment at all costs, but that doesn’t mean civil disobedience.
“What it means is we’re going to push the fight to the government at the table and industry. We would rather have them at the table during negotiations to resolve this issue. We get more support from the general public if we were to do it the proper way through the proper channels,” said Adam. “If need be, if the governments and industry will not listen to us, we have no other choice than revert to court action.”
Whether those two parties have their ears open may not be too promising as concerns raised in the past to government and industry have “always fallen on deaf ears,” said Adam, pointing to the revenue they gain from the oilsands.
“Wealth can’t buy you happiness. It’s the land that provides the services for you that provides that happiness that comes from within.”
As for the conference, which featured numerous panel and group discussions focusing on the water quality and environment, Adam was impressed, saying it surpassed all of his expectations.
“It went excellent,” he said. “It’s a world class conference.”
He added he was surprised by the number of people attending the event, not only from his own community, but from outside, across the north, and other parts of Canada.
“It shows that people are concerned. It’s at forums and conferences like this that speak of the issues, people will come to support, because they’re finding no support within the government structure right now.”