The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) held a press conference in Edmonton on Monday, July 7 in conjunction with the release of Environmental and Human Health Implications of the Athabasca Oil Sands, a study that is the first to document associations between oil sands-perpetrated environmental contaminants and unusually high incidences of rare illness in Fort Chipewyan.
The report integrates laboratory data with survey and interview responses from community members to provide a window into the complexities of health and well-being in Fort Chipewyan that is much more comprehensive than any previous research in the region. This approach reveals what head researcher Dr. Stéphane McLachlan (University of Manitoba) calls the “double-bind”: As heavy metals and carcinogenic hydrocarbons flow downstream from bitumen extraction sites, traditional, wild-caught foods like moose and fish becoming increasingly risky for consumption, thus jeopardizing a tradition of living off the land that has been preserved by Cree and Dené people for thousands of years. But if Fort Chipewyan residents choose to avoid toxins by purchasing store-bought foods, they must pay exceptionally high prices for low-quality ingredients or highly processed items.
At Monday’s press conference, ACFN Chief Allan Adam, MCFN Chief Steve Courtoreille, and Dr. Stéphane McLachlan each provided remarks on the study before fielding questions from the media, moderated by ACFN communications coordinator Eriel Deranger. Chief Courtoreille, who opened the conference with a prayer of healing and gratitude, spoke of his commitment and duty to protect his people against disconcertingly high rates of cancer and other serious illnesses—the “scariest part,” he says, “is that you wonder who’ll be next.” The Chief reminded the crowd that though the report is backed by advanced analysis and statistical calculations, it simply confirms what the Elders have been saying all along: “that the changes in health in our community are connected to tar sands.” He asked, “if I allow this to continue, what is the future going to look like—for our children, our grandchildren, and the ones that are not here yet, that are still coming?”
A reverence for the wisdom of Elders and for generations of the future is of great importance to the people of Fort Chipewyan, and this health study worked to recognize such community values. Though the project is broadly structured following conventions of Western science, the project is particularly notable for its unprecedented emphasis on integrative methodology; conventions of Western science and traditional Native ways of knowing are employed to observe and document environmental anomalies, dietary practices, healthcare access, and cultural norms and shifts. This makes the wisdom and teachings of Fort Chipewyan Elders and involvement of youth instrumental to the research process. The study was completed in combinationwith the community-based monitoring (CBM) program, an initiative through which Elders work directly with youth—in school and in the bush—to develop monitoring and observational skills.
The health report supplements statistical evidence of the connection between declining health and increasing oil sands activity, with the personal experiences and stories of ACFN and MCFN members—thus reflecting the McLachlan team’s efforts to prioritize community participation and feedback. Community members are kept abreast of findings and new developments through social media, a quarterly newsletter, and this news aggregator website (onerivernews.ca). The voices of the community members are also amplified in One River, Many Relations, a feature-length documentary produced in constant collaboration with people in Fort Chipewyan.
Chief Allan Adam concluded the comments section of Monday’s press conference, reminding those present of the urgency for further study of the health concerns facing Fort Chipewyan. He exclaimed that thus far the “government—both federal and provincial—refuses to do anything about it.” The only way to find a solution,” said the Chief, “is through regulatory reform”—”it comes to a time where we have to sit down and talk to each other… We’re still at the table and not going nowhere,” he said. Chief Adam was clear: any industry projects must be able to demonstrate that they have “no effects on the Athabasca River whatsoever.” But until the oil sands project approval process is restructured to prioritize thorough research and communication of the health and environmental risks posed to First Nations communities, adequate consultation cannot be achieved. And development will continue to accelerate unchecked, leaving the community of Fort Chipewyan to handle the aftermath of contaminated food and declining health. “It’s time for government to truly represent the people of Alberta,” urged Chief Adam.
For more information:
Eriel Deranger, Communications Coordinator, 780-903-6598