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For Indigenous communities in Alberta, the oil industry has left an ugly stain

Jason Castor out on the river in his boat | Photo by Brandi Morin

Facing oil spills, evacuations and illness — nations downstream of the oil sands grieve their way of life, as the corporations polluting their water get richer

In September, journalist Brandi Morin and cinematographer Geordie Day spent several days in the Fort Chipewyan area, reporting on the enduring impact of oil sands extraction on local Indigenous communities for IndigiNews, The Real News Network and Ricochet. They met with ACFN Chief Allan Adam and other community members and Elders, and spoke with experts like toxicologist Mandy Olsgard and Dr. John O’Connor. It’s one of several reporting trips Morin has made to the area over the past year, covering a story that may soon wind up in court, and in national headlines. This article, and accompanying feature documentary, are co-published by all three outlets.

The rush of the wind and sprays of water add to the thrill as Jason Castor guides his riverboat through a stretch of Lake Athabasca near Fort Chipewyan, in Treaty 8 territories. If he slows down, his boat could get stuck in the mud or even flip over because the water levels in this spot are remarkably low. He steers around buoys, dodges logs and other debris while accelerating to the mouth of the channel, which he knows should be deep enough to navigate at an average speed.

While trawling his boat further down the river, Castor points to odd-looking clusters resembling dirty foam floating by.

“There’s just a slurry of a foam that looks like oil or some kind of chemical in there,” says Castor, a 42-year-old father, construction business owner and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN).

He’s been a traditional hunter, trapper and fisherman for nearly 20 years and has documented strange changes in the water, the land and animals. Something’s going on in the river, he says.

“They say that it’s natural, well, I know that that’s not natural because I’ve been on the river my whole life,” he explains as he points to brown and white foam, oil sheens and other discoloured formations floating on the river..

Nowadays, it’s risky to navigate these waterways because of industrial intakes like the W.A.C. Bennett Dam to the west in B.C.; the Alberta oil sands just up the river and impacts from climate change.

In Fort Chipewyan, many in the community have noticed changes in the water. Jason Castor pulls out of the water what appears to be a slurry of a foam that looks like oil or some kind of chemical. “I know that it’s not natural because I’ve been on the river my whole life,” he says.

The Peace-Athabasca Delta is the second-largest freshwater delta in the world.

The Athabasca River, and the larger delta, also sit atop the world’s largest known reservoir of crude bitumen.

The industry that has sprung up around it drives Alberta’s and Canada’s economy, employing about 138,000 people. In 2021, crude bitumen production totaled approximately 3.3 million barrels per day. The oil sands energy sector including oil sands, conventional oil and gas, mining and quarrying is valued at about $18 billion.

But while Canada prospers off the oil sands industry, Indigenous communities downstream are dealing with its toxic impacts.

Not only are the water levels fluctuating, but the health of the water flowing through the Athabasca River is jeopardized.

Last month we released a feature documentary by Brandi Morin and Geordie Day called ‘Killer Water,’ about the impact of oil sands pollution on local Indigenous communities. You can watch it below, or find it on YouTube.

Castor stops his boat about three hours south of Fort Chipewyan where the river flows closer to the oil sands.

Castor worked as a heavy equipment operator for a major oil extraction company in the oil sands for several years. He says he became unnerved after contributing to the demolition of the land and moved back home to Fort Chipewyan.

“There was so much going on, like there’s oil trucks moving around and all the spills, and there’s always the smell of bitumen and oil and diesel, and my heart — just thinking of me working for the company, and I just got disconnected,” Castor says.

“Like, it was a point where I was only there for the money. And then I just felt sick to my stomach when I went to work. It was like, ‘what am I doing to my land? And what am I doing to the water?’”

Castor was raised in the foster care system away from Fort Chipewyan after both of his parents died while ice-fishing on Lake Athabasca when he was young. Then, nearly 20 years ago, Castor moved his wife and children back to Fort Chipewyan and did the hard work of learning a traditional lifestyle.

But he won’t allow his children to swim in the lake basin near home or in the Athabasca River — the risks are too high.

“I quit eating fish in this community. Because of the statistics, they say you can only eat like one or two fish because of the mercury and stuff like that. I know all the oil comes down, oil and gas and whatever else. I mean, they say it’s safe, but we don’t know.”

When he travels the river to pick up supplies or visit friends in Fort McMurray, he doesn’t take his hunting or fishing equipment even though there are often moose and other wildlife.

“I wouldn’t want to eat anything from there. And it’s like the animals know when you’re in that area. They know that you’re not going to hunt them…” his voice has an eerie tone as he trails off; the animals are aware the environment is poisoned, he says, and that Indigenous people won’t hunt them there.

Castor and other locals suspect pollution from the oil sands has been affecting them for years.

Their fears aren’t unfounded. There are documented high rates of cancer and other diseases in Fort Chipewyan with no explanation as to the source, and a recent major tailings pond spill has underscored their concerns.

In February, Indigenous communities downstream from Imperial Oil’s Kearl Mine, roughly 75 kilometres upstream of Fort Chipewyan, learned of a massive spill of 5.3 million litres from the mine’s tailings area.

Kearl is a bitumen mine capable of producing 240,000 barrels per day. The mine’s industrial operations generate wastewater, commonly referred to as tailings, which contain dissolved substances such as iron, arsenic and naphthenic acids.

These tailings contain the byproducts of the extraction process used in oil sands mining including water, sand, clay, residual bitumen and various chemicals.

The Kearl Mine impact zone covers five hectares, according to Imperial Oil. It extends well beyond the tailings enclosure designed to segregate these byproducts into nearby boreal muskeg and waterways.

The tailings water released in that spill exceeded federal and provincial guidelines for arsenic, sulphates, and hydrocarbons that may include kerosene, creosote and diesel.

This leak, named one of the largest releases of tailings in Alberta’s history, contained toxic [levels of contaminants](https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/oil sands-kearl-leak-alberta-indigenous-1.6773040), including naphthenic acids and arsenic.

In February, Indigenous communities downstream of Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine, about 74 kilometres upstram of FC, learned of a massive spill from the mine’s tailing area. It was one of the largest releases of toxic tailings in Alberta’s history. APTN

Fort Chipewyan’s leadership was only made aware of the toxic spill through an Environmental Protection Order issued by the Alberta Energy Regulator that called on the company to immediately contain and remediate the spill on February 6. Then in March, the Canadian Press obtained a document which showed the province stalled on initiating an emergency response for a month after it knew about the spill, until First Nations chiefs in the area went public about not being informed.

Environment and Climate Change Canada say they only learned of the incident on February 7, 2023, following the AER’s publication of the emergency order for Imperial Oil to contain the ongoing leak. Then ECCC Minister Steven Guilbeault issued a Fisheries Act directive to Imperial Oil, requiring them to take immediate action to prevent any seepage from entering fish-bearing waters because the seepage is believed to be harmful to fish.

Meanwhile, Indigenous leaders found out that another, long-term spill at the same Kearl Mine site had been leaking for at least nine months prior to the major incident in February. Even though mine employees discovered the leak and notified Imperial Oil, which in turn alerted the AER, neither told affected Indigenous communities, the public, or provincial, territorial and federal governments. They were only informed of the previous incident when the EPO was released.

The government of the Northwest Territories has also accused the Alberta government of breaching their agreement to provide timely information regarding the spills. The Athabasca River is interconnected with Lake Athabasca, which in turn supplies water to the Slave River, ultimately flowing into the Northwest Territories.

Indigenous leaders reacted to the news in anger and called for the AER to be disbanded due to an erosion of trust and policies allowing oil companies to “largely police themselves.”

Soon after the incident, Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner launched an investigation into the AER’s communication about the tailings pond leak at Imperial’s Kearl project.

The community of Fort Chipewyan, commonly referred to as Fort Chip, is in northern Alberta. It is located on the western tip of Lake Athabasca, just north of Fort McMurray. Fort Chip is only accessible by boat or plane

Privacy commissioner Diane McLeod said the OIPC will examine “whether AER had an obligation under Section 32 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) to disclose information to the public or others about the leak.”

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam accused Imperial Oil of covering up the spills and called the AER “a complete joke,” during a hearing in Ottawa at the House of Commons’ environment and sustainability committee investigating why it took nine months for Imperial Oil to go public about the spills.

Following those hearings, the committee launched a formal investigation into potential violations of the Fisheries Act by Imperial Oil.

The nightmare didn’t end there. Just one month after the Kearl Mine spill, Suncor reported six million litres of tailings water that exceeded sediment guidelines had been released into the Athabasca River from its Fort Hills oil sands mine.

Although Imperial Oil states its spill did not affect nearby waterways or wildlife, that contradicts the findings of the AER, which revealed that test results indicate the presence of “industrial wastewater within Waterbody 3,” a body of water that supports fish life and is situated on the northeastern boundary of Imperial’s Kearl lease. Subsequent testing of Waterbody 3 detected hydrocarbons at levels that exceeded water quality guidelines.

Imperial Oil did not respond to Ricochet’s requests for an interview.

The AER asserts that the toxicant loads fall within safe limits for the general public, but it remains unclear which specific contaminants are being tested for.

The AER declined Ricochet’s interview requests, citing the ongoing investigation into the tailings spills and its failure to inform affected communities.

However, ACFN leadership was granted access to the spill area in March. According to a press release, their findings were “worse than what anyone anticipated.”

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Brandi Morin

They observed toxic water still on the ground in an unfenced, uncontained area; animal tracks leading in and out of the spill area; a single pump that had only been installed the day before in an attempt to remove the visible uncontained tailings spill; new tailings puddles forming as the temperature increased; and no barriers placed between seepage and water bodies.

It’s a battle that ACFN Chief Adam has been fighting for decades. Adam, who has been ACFN’s elected chief for almost 16 consecutive years, became internationally recognized for raising the alarm about the adverse impacts of the oil sands on treaty rights, climate change, and public health.

During an interview in September, Adam, 56, sat at a popular lookout on a rocky knoll on Lake Athabasca, wearing a traditional hide vest with Dene beaded flowers and fringe over a black and white plaid flannel shirt.

“Regardless of what government forms or what government is in place, when your back is up against a circle of a wall, try to find the curve, and I’ll put you there,” he says.

He’s referencing the irrefutable proof of who’s responsible for the tailing’s leaks — and who needs to pay up.

Leonardo DiCaprio is among the Hollywood celebrities that have visited the community to express support and stand with Chief Allan Adam.

“Right now, that’s where they’re at, and there’s nowhere for them to go. They’re trapped… by the evidence that’s there. And we will prove it.”

He says the ACFN is preparing a court case against industry and the provincial and federal governments.

“From ACFN’s point of view, how the justice scale goes, we will find out. And this is going to court. And it’s not going to look good for Canada. And it’s not going to look good for Alberta. Alberta will fight. But Canada will buckle. Because our treaty trumps everything. And we can’t allow our water to be tainted.”

Celebrities including Leonardo Dicaprio, Neil Young, Jane Fonda, director James Cameron, and activist Greta Thunberg have visited Fort Chipewyan to help amplify these concerns. In 2014, South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the oil sands “the world’s dirtiest oil,” at a press conference with Chief Adam in Fort McMurray. Tutu also said, “only those who want to be blind can’t see that we are sitting on a powder keg,” in the oil sands. Then, in 2018, along with a coalition of other Indigenous communities, Adam announced that he wanted to buy a stake in Canada’s Trans Mountain pipeline or partner to build another future line.

Chief Allan Adam with activist and founder of the Fridays for Future movement Greta Thunberg.

“We want to be owners of a pipeline,” Adam told the CBC. “We think that a pipeline is a critical component to the oil and gas sector, especially in this region.”

He went on to say he was “tired” of the ongoing struggles with the oil industry.

“The fact is I am tired. I am tired of fighting. We have accomplished what we have accomplished. Now let’s move on and let’s start building a pipeline and start moving the oil that’s here already.”

The straight-talking leader was labeled a sellout by some people who claimed he abandoned the cause of saving the environment. Adam said he couldn’t stop the industry, prompting him to change strategies in an attempt to ensure that his community at least receives long-overdue financial compensation.

“What I did is, I went and fought for compensation for the nation because of the high rates of cancer, pollution of our waterways, the continuation of the pollution of our natural foods. Who is going to compensate us for all of that when all of this is gone?” he said in an interview with this reporter for Al Jazeera English in 2020.

But it didn’t mean he gave up caring about what happens to his homelands. He says he’s ready to battle the polluters and the governments that support them.

He believes that the resources deep beneath the surface belong to First Nations, who have never received proper compensation for being the source of Canada’s riches.

“They could be giants and walk over us and everything, but you take out their knees, they will fall,” he says bluntly, while nodding his head.

“We have legal rights, we have legal position, we have legal title, and we never ever surrendered anything.”

He wants Alberta to pay Treaty 8 nations a cut of the province’s earnings from industry profits in the oil sands. And he’s still waiting for Premier Danielle Smith to answer a text he sent her during her election campaign last spring.

“She hasn’t answered my text but I know she’s got it… I just told her straight out, like, you know, you want to continue this to go on? Well then, give us 10 per cent of all revenue sharing within Treaty 8 territory,” he says.

“That’s within fair reason. And you don’t even have to back pay us, just pay us up to date. Because I think alone within what goes out of Treaty 8, I think 10 per cent will make every Treaty 8 First Nation build a good foundation and have a perfect home.”

“They could be giants and walk over us and everything, but you take out their knees, they will fall,” he says bluntly, while nodding his head. “We have legal rights, we have legal position, we have legal title, and we never ever surrendered anything.”

Adam, along with Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy Tuccaro, accused Smith of downplaying the tailings spills when she said they had “no effect” on local waterways or wildlife.

And, after holding back a wildfire that caused the entire community of Fort Chipewyan (which is only accessible by boat or plane), to be evacuated in May, Chief Adam is growing frustrated with the encroaching threats he believes are linked to industrial development.

“And, you know, when times like this are happening, where homes are being destroyed by wildfire and everything because of climate change, of development and everything. I raised the alarm, you know, years ago when I said that one day we’ll become environmental refugees. Where are we now?”

The CEO of Imperial Oil apologized to Canadian lawmakers in Ottawa last April for the toxic spills. Brad Corson acknowledged that the company had acted “negligently” by not sharing crucial information with neighbouring First Nation communities.

The president and CEO of the AER also issued an apology saying the incidents were finally made public due to the federal environmental protection order to stop the seepage. “It is clear that neither Imperial nor the AER met community expectations to ensure they are fully aware of what is, and what was happening. And for that I am truly sorry,” Laurie Pushor told the parliamentary committee.

The CEO of Imperial Oil Brad Corson told the government that its spill did not impact drinking water or wildlife. However the AER’s own tests indicate evidence of industrial wastewater and other chemicals in a body of water containing fish near the mine. Imperial Oil also expressed their “regrets” to Chief Adam.

“We work hard to maintain transparent communication with our communities, and we recognize the communities’ concerns about delays in receiving additional information,” oil sands and mining vice president Jamie Long told CTV News.

“We have expressed to [Chief Adam] directly our regret that our communications did not meet the expectations of the ACFN community, we further committed to him that we are taking the necessary steps to improve our communications, so this does not happen again in the future.”

That apology doesn’t mean much, says Adam, who feels like he was strung along and purposely lied to by the company.

He pauses to look over the lake, the wind blows the waves to the shore. The light blue sky reflecting above conjures a beautiful scene of tranquility.

“When you look at your grandchildren and everything and you say, is that my legacy that’s going to continue to happen? And yet we’re watching our own grandchildren, our own kids, pass away with diseases of cancer and everything and we can’t do nothing.”

Journalist Brandi Morin interviews Chief Allan Adam

Adam is also an avid hunter, trapper and fisherman. His tone shifts as he speaks about his ailing father-in-law, Johnny Courtorielle, who was diagnosed with liver cancer.

“You know, 15 years ago, when we first brought it out to the public about what was going on here, just because nobody talks about it, it’s still going on. You know, people are still being diagnosed with cancer, but we live it because it’s our normal.”

Back in April, when he testified at the House of Commons Environment and Sustainability Committee about the impacts of the tailing spills, he learned his father-in-law’s diagnosis.

“Everything that’s here will affect people regardless of what, you know. And my father-in-law lived off the land all his life. He still goes out in the bush today. He’s 88 years old. He just came back yesterday from the bush,” he says. “And you can’t stop him. His love for the land is who he is. And like I said, it all connects together. Everything connects. The water, the land, what we eat, everything, and the people.”

Now, he and his wife are deciding whether they will move back home to Fort Chipewyan. The two currently live in Fort McMurray because it’s easier for his wife to receive medical care for her arthritis. The only way his wife travels home to Fort Chipewyan is via boat.

“My wife has to make a decision now because yesterday the doctor told us to expect one month to one year (for her father to live).”

Adam says his wife isn’t able to fly, and BC Hydro’s Site C project is currently lowering water levels in the river, making it hard for them to travel.

“So that’s a decision my wife has to take and we have to go back to McMurray to make sure that all her medication is all in place because if she comes back here, we’re isolated, and we have to make sure that the medication comes here.”

Adam knows the pain of losing relatives to cancer and disease, including his own father.

Choking up with emotion, he recalls taking a break from leadership to take care of his father before he passed. “When my dad went through this process, I had to make a decision as a chief back then. What do I do? Do I run the nation, or do I step aside? And I stepped aside for six months to spend time with my dad.”

The impacted Indigenous nations, who rely on local food sources and water, were kept in the dark about the leak for nine months. This includes members of the Mikisew Cree, the Athabasca Chipewyan and Fort McKay First Nations, the Fort Chipewyan Metis, and other downstream communities – all the way to the Northwest Territories. This means community members harvested meat, berries and other medicines from the territory, consumed fish from the water, unaware of the risk of contamination. Brandi Morin

Growing up, Adam says the land and water were pure. He described the lake and riverways as the family’s “deep freeze,” that was “fresh daily,” and says he’d eat locally harvested meat and fish in abundance. These days he’s cautious about the number of fish he consumes.

“I think within a year I take maybe four fish. And yet fish is [supposed to be] the healthiest thing that you could eat.”

The water, a source of life, should sustain and nourish his community like it did for thousands of years for his ancestors.

Not anymore. It’s a “killer” he says. And after the community learned of the tailings spills everyone threw their harvested meat and fish into the trash.

“I said, ‘would you feed it to your own dog?’ No, we’ll throw it away,” the Elders were especially upset, he says.

“Yeah, we’re scared. I’ll say that for a fact.”

He motions to the scenery before him. The water shimmers under the golden rays of the sun, as the trees of the lush boreal forest hug the rocky banks.

“The innocent killer. Looks so beautiful, but yet, it’s a killer,” his eyebrows raise with bewilderment.

It’s a situation he finds ironic. Almost 80 per cent of people who live in Fort Chipewyan consume traditional foods and medicines harvested from the land and water. But the rights of Indigenous Peoples to have access to those ways of life are being eroded.

“It’s (water) supposed to provide life for our people, for everybody, but what about down from here, downstream, and it continues on going down, and nobody listens to the people and the stories that are coming from the north. And how many people from the north are continuing to have the same illnesses, the same sicknesses that we have.”

A cluster of cancers

Dr. John O’Connor who worked as a physician in Fort Chipewyan for nearly 16 years, alerted officials about heightened rates of both rare and common cancers. He was cleared of accusations made against him in 2009 of raising “undue alarm” by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. In the same year, the Alberta Cancer Board conducted a study that revealed cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan were, in fact, about 30 per cent higher than expected.

O’Connor, who now practices in Fort McKay First Nation and Fort McMurray, said he noticed a disproportionate number of sicknesses in his patients in Fort Chipewyan not long into his practice.

“Within the first couple of years, it was sort of apparent to me that this community of 1,200 people had a lot of illness,” he says.

“And then as I got to know the community more and the trust was established, it dawned on me that this was quite a shock — cancer and autoimmune diseases of a type and a number that I really wasn’t seeing in my large practice in Fort McMurray.”

Many community members remember a time when they could drink the water directly from the river. Now that would be unthinkable. Brandi Morin

He also made the connection that the majority of the locals live traditional lifestyles; meaning they consume the water, fish and meat from the land, and that could be the source of the higher rates of cancer and disease.

“They hunted, fished, trapped, and gathered. You know, they couldn’t afford the food at the Northern store, some did, and obviously for some of the food they had to go there. But they were very well established, very self-contained and contented. So, it made it all the more sort of alarming for me that I would see this.”

When he tried to forewarn the medical industry and governments about his findings, he says he was accused of “stirring up trouble.” He thinks his findings were purposely swept under the rug.

“As years went by, it sort of dawned on me that this was probably preconceived. This is something that was already in the vocabulary in their (industry, governments) lexicon, and I just happened to touch a raw nerve with them, because there was no undue alarm,” he says.

“The facts were there for all to see. Documented, not just by me, but by the provincial health authority and by the feds themselves. They were obviously hiding something. They were protecting big oil, big fossils.”

He’s not surprised about the latest tailings leaks, and points out the oil sands tailings have been leaking for decades.

Various reports, including a 2020 report released by Environmental Defence, based on the oil industry’s own reporting methods, found that Syncrude’s Aurora Settling Basin tailing pond has been leaking about 39.25 million litres per year since it began operating 20 years ago. The report highlights that the toxic waste fluids amount to approximately 785 billion litres, with the Muskeg River — a tributary of the Athabasca River — located less than one kilometre away.

Dr. John O’Connor worked as a physician in Fort Chipewyan for nearly 16 years, alerted officials about heightened rates of both rare and common cancers.

There are 30 tailings ponds operating across nine oil sands projects that cover 300 square kilometres of what was once northern boreal forest. On average, industry generates approximately 2,000 to 2,500 liters of tailings per barrel of bitumen.

Considering current production levels, this equates to around 1.8 billion liters of tailings being produced daily. That’s the equivalent of more than 700 Olympic-sized swimming pools being filled every day. The report further estimates that since the start of mining operations in 1968, there are now about five and a half trillion litres of tailings accumulated in the landscape.

Tailings ponds are often engineered with impermeable liners, such as high-density polyethylene or compacted clay, to create an additional barrier against water leakage. However, tailings pond designs and management practices vary depending on specific regulations which have fluctuated over the many years the oil sands have been operating. While the liners may keep the tailings from sloshing out of the ponds, they don’t prevent seepage.

Citing research conducted in 2008, the report indicates that conservative estimates at that time saw a leakage of over four billion liters of fluid annually from the tailing’s ponds. Since then, the volume of these ponds has increased by more than 230 per cent, while their size has grown by approximately 170 per cent. Consequently, it’s estimated that the volumes of seepage could be much higher.

“There are carcinogenic chemicals in these tailings ponds that individually are class one carcinogens for humans and animals… science is unsure of the impact of when they’re mixed.”

“Who’d be surprised at this? Back then they had public hearings, at one of them Suncor admitted that their oldest pond had been leaking at an alarming rate for years directly into the water table,” O’Connor says, shaking his head, his forehead furrowed with concern.

“So, these latest leaks were a drop in the bucket compared to what’s been happening forever.” And the effects of toxins leaking into the water and pollution blowing through the air breathed in by people downstream of the oil sands are deadly, he says.

“There are carcinogenic chemicals in these tailings ponds that individually are class one carcinogens for humans and animals. There are chemicals in tailings ponds that science is unsure of the impact of when they’re mixed, the soup that’s created by these tailings ponds,” he says.

“And there’s also even more alarming endocrine disruptors that are leaching directly into the environment, into the water, that are impacting fish. And of course, fish are a staple diet in Fort Chip.”

In the fall of 2022, this reporter visited ACFN’s Jackfish Lake reserve south of Fort Chipewyan where community members were processing a harvest caught in Lake Athabasca.

During a short two-hour window, two deformed fish were pulled from the catch. Biologists and scientists were on hand to take samples of the fish to test for toxins. They also took samples of the abnormal growths on the fish.

Alberta’s oil sands Photo by Garth Lenz via Environmental Defence

As of September 2023, tests on the samples from the deformed fish have still not been conducted due to a backup in the laboratory, says fish camp administrator and environmental scientist Bruce McLean. The results of testing of the general whitefish population, however, show low levels of contamination.

“It looks good. I would have no concern (to eat the whitefish),” McLean says in a telephone interview.

However, he adds Northern pike and walleye would be more susceptible to contaminants because they feed on other fish, whereas whitefish don’t. Northern pike and walleye have not yet been tested for contaminants, although plans are in the works to begin that process, he adds.

“I do think that the (fish) resource is in danger from oil sands development, particularly the release of oil sands processed waters. The (other) thing we’re seeing, it’s landscape alteration,” McLean says.

“We know that the upgraders bring contaminants into the water and on the snow. We know that there are changes to reproductive health in animals. But we don’t really know the full consequences of what they’re doing. And so, people do feel like they’re the experiment. And I think we know there’s big problems.”

‘This river is my fridge’

Mikisew Cree member Calvin Waquan utilizes Lake Athabasca and its river systems on a regular basis. Being out on the water in his canoe or kayak during sunrise and sunset is healing, he says. He moved home to Fort Chipewyan after his father was murdered in Edmonton in 2014 because he wanted to reconnect with his ancestral homeland.

“I see this lake as something that teaches me a lot of lessons. It’s my fridge. It’s my classroom. It’s my history book. It’s my solitude.”

Now, he’s a husband and father of two and manages a local store, Chief’s Corner. Even though he spent summers visiting his grandparents in Fort Chipewyan and swam in the river and lake, he won’t allow his children to go in the water.

“I was pretty riled up and I walked in there pretty calm, and I just told them how I felt, and how my ancestors have been trying to tell people from the beginning. Just like my granny, my Kohkum said, ‘enough is enough’. And I just had enough.”

“You see the beauty of our community, the nice homes, the trucks, side-by-sides, the boats, but that all comes with a cost, and it all comes with the thought of being sick one day,” he says while we paddle kayaks just offshore of what’s known as “big dock” in Fort Chipewyan.

The Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca have become the “toilet bowl” of industry.

“My wife wanted to move away from here…but I want to be here with my people and with my granny and beside my father that I buried nine and a half years ago. But it’s getting to a point where I don’t know if I want to stick around because young guys like me are dying from cancers and older people are passing away and it’s sad to see,” he says.

“Is it the meat? Is it the fish? Is it the air? Is it the plants? It’s all connected. It’s everything. It’s the medicines. It’s everything that we trusted before, we are guessing at now.”

After he learned of the Kearl Mine tailings spill he showed up at a Town Hall held by Imperial Oil in March holding a water bottle tainted with motor oil. He presented the bottle to Imperial Oil’s Long.

“I was pretty riled up and I walked in there pretty calm, and I just told them how I felt, and how my ancestors have been trying to tell people from the beginning. Just like my granny, my Kohkum said, ‘enough is enough’. And I just had enough. I saw my little girl there, my boy,” his voice trails as his lips tremble and his eyes fill with tears.

“Once industry is affecting the serenity of that and the beauty of this water and these lands, I’m gonna stand up and be a warrior for my people today and tomorrow and for every day to come. And, you know, when they (industry) make promises that are broken… I just thought I have to do something for my people.”

Mikisew Cree member Calvin Waquan says he utilizes Lake Athabasca and its river systems on a regular basis. He is deeply worried that industry has changed the land and water forever, and will eventually force many in the community to become ‘climate refugees.’

There was a time when his ancestors lived long lives, he continues. They subsisted off the land with berries, meat, fish and hard work. After the forceful removal of the Chipewyan and Cree from their traditional territories when they were made to settle in Fort Chipewyan, even after the residential “school” system devastated their way of life, they were able to largely maintain their culture and traditions. Their new enemy is the poisoning of their water and land by industry. Waquan too has experienced unprecedented loss.

“When I’m burying my papa and my uncle and cousins and seeing other people die from rare cancers, bile duct cancers, you can’t tell me there’s something not wrong here.”

The prospect of one day leaving Fort Chipewyan to give his children a healthier environment is heartbreaking, says Waquan.

“This home saved me after my father was murdered. I moved back here to help my people to create a legacy for the youth and the ones yet to come. And I have done that in the 10 years with Solar Farm and other projects.

“I’m at a point where, can I help my nation, outside this community, from afar, and keep my children safe for years to come? Because I don’t want to be bringing them to the Stollery (hospital) or places like that. I see other kids and it breaks my heart — my son had two friends, recently had cancer and they’re the same age as him, 10 years old.

“When someone like Dr. O’Connor blows the whistle, they get threatened to take their job away, or to silence them because of the almighty dollar, but… Where’s our share? Where’s the royalties? Where’s something that’s gonna create sustainability? Something that’s going to create sovereignty for our people.”

“I think industry is untouchable. It owns this province, everything. It’s the purse strings, the government policy.”

O’Connor is even more agitated at the increasing number of children reportedly being diagnosed with cancer. He calls it the “canary in the mine.”

“The other health issues that are in Ford Chip are red flags… children getting cancer,” says O’Connor. “There should be a fire alarm sounded. And I don’t hear any concern being expressed by anyone in a position of authority or, in the public health, or federally or provincially.”

He suspects the lack of concern by authorities exists to protect the interests of industry and the profits governments stand to lose.

“I think industry is untouchable. It owns this province, everything. It’s the purse strings, the government policy.”

Ian Peace, an environmental scientist who lived and worked in northern Alberta, including Fort Chipewyan for several years, wrote a thesis about leaking tailings in the oil sands that was published in 2019.

His research suggests that process-affected water was likely making its way from the tailings impoundment area down to the river.

Journalist Brandi Morin interviews environmental scientist Ian Peace, who lived and worked in northern Alberta, including Fort Chipewyan, for several years.

“These are large-scale projects, and it’s widely agreed that naphthenic acids are the main toxicant of concern that is produced by processing of oil sands ore. And I did a little bit of number crunching on this and there’s only about 200 milligrams of naphthenic acid in a kilogram of oil sands ore,” he says.

“But the larger projects are moving in the range of half a million cubic meters or tons of ore per day. And scaling that up, the result is that between Suncor and Syncrude, there are at least 200,000 kilograms per day of naphthenic acids being discharged to tailings ponds. And that is a substance that has been shown to kill fish in concentrations as low as 20 milligrams per litre.”

After tailings are discharged following the oil production process, it’s about 90 per cent water. And 80 per cent of that water drains out of the bottom of the tailings ponds, leaving behind mostly the toxic “sludge”, which industry calls mature fine tailings or fine fluid tailings.

“So, here goes all those tailings into the tailings pond, and most of the water drains out the bottom, leaving behind these sludge accumulations. And that main contaminant is naphthenic acids. That’s the one that everybody agrees is the biggest concern. There’s lots of heavy metals and other compounds. But when we’re looking at what is the most serious one, it’s these naphthenic acids. And that is readily dissolving in water,” says Peace.

That means that as the toxic tailings water makes its way through the ground underneath the tailings pond, it mixes with the river and everything in between.

“It’s expressing to the river in almost the same amounts that are already dissolved into the tailings water.”

Growing up, Chief Adam says the land and water were pure. He says the community has always depended on the lake and riverways, eating locally harvested meat and fish in abundance. These days he’s cautious about the number of fish he consumes. Some fish have even been found to be deformed with mysterious growths appearing on their bodies.

Brandi Morin

He believes industry and governments minimize the impacts of oil sands development and the leaking tailings.

“I think that that’s very clear. If you take a look at the way they have approached the issue, you can see that it’s downplayed tactically and strategically. There’s no doubt. They don’t look for a number of compounds. They don’t look in the areas where they might find it. And it’s been an effective strategy.”

Peace conducted experiments with a colleague and documented tailings water leaking from a tailings pond adjacent to the Athabasca River. They sampled and tested the river water for major ions which have a different chemical makeup than regular river or surface water. One area was found to be “extremely high” in major ions.

“But you’ve got to remember that all this stuff sort of occurs naturally in a region anyway. So, it’s hard to come up with something that’s categorically attributed to one particular source when it’s also found in natural bitumen deposits that are in the area.”

Human health as an afterthought

There’s a significant void when it comes to knowledge of the combination of the chemicals in tailings and how the spills affect human health. The other issue at hand is proving whether or not the higher rates of cancer are linked to the oil sands, says environmental toxicologist Mandy Olsgard. Osgard has worked to assess water contamination for the AER and various First Nations communities throughout her career, including Fort Chipewyan.

“There is no regulatory body that is responsible for community or human health once that (tailings) project is approved,” she says during a telephone interview.

“We only manage human health through the environment and environmental quality monitoring. So, there’s this gap between what we predicted as a risk to human or Indigenous community health and then how we monitor that during the life of a project. So, it’s not shocking that communities are bringing these concerns forward, whether it’s odors from air emissions, deposition of dust, changes to wildlife and plants.”

The oil sands energy sector is valued at about $18 billion. It drives Alberta’s and Canada’s economy, employing about 138,000 people. But while Canada prospers off the oil sands industry, Indigenous communities downstream are dealing with its toxic impacts. In 2021, crude bitumen production totalled 3.3 million barrels per day, worth more than $42 billion in sales value.

The provincial and federal governments have said multiple water tests they conducted found no evidence of contamination of waterways near the Kearl Mine. But ACFN, the Mikisew Cree and Métis governments in Fort Chipewyan have been continuously testing the water at their treatment plant since they learned of the spills.

However, Olsgard says standard water inspections are inadequate.

Because of the lack of risk assessments on human health, it’s hard to determine if carcinogenic chemicals and endocrine disrupters are causing higher rates of cancer and diseases north of the oil sands. Tests for certain chemicals are just not conducted.

“We’ve never really linked that to how it changed human health and the condition of human health. So, there are studies that have shown chemical concentrations are elevated. So that’s why when people come and say, ‘Oh, but we’re cleaning up the world’s largest oil project.’ That’s all bunk — they’re not,” she says.

“They process the oil sands and they release different types of chemicals, different forms of those chemicals, and sometimes novel chemicals. They have introduced polyacrylamide and acrylamide into the environment up there for flocculants in tailings ponds or things that make the tailings come together and sink to the bottom to clarify the water cap.

“There is no regulatory body that is responsible for community or human health once that (tailings) project is approved.”

“And so, there’s novel chemicals, there’s increased concentrations; they change the oxidation state of metals and that’s important because of how bioavailable, how easily a human can absorb the oxidation state. So, when people are saying this was natural, no, it’s not.”

She mentions rhetoric that many skeptics of oil sands contamination use, arguing that tar naturally exists in the Athabasca River.

Tar does naturally exist along the Athabasca River’s banks and tributaries. Its black goo seeping from the shores has been recorded by local Indigenous tribes for millennia and as early as the 1700s by settler explorers.

Environmental toxicologist Mandy Olsgard.

Throughout millions of years, organic matter, primarily algae, settled at the bottom of a prehistoric sea and became buried under sediment. The increasing depth led to the application of heat and pressure, resulting in chemical transformations that converted the organic matter into hydrocarbons, including oil.

But the naturally occurring tar isn’t what these concerns are about. The issue is the industrial process of mining the tar from the sand, and creating oil for the markets.

Even though oil derived from “sands” appears unique, it’s developed in the same way as conventional oil.

“Development changed it (the river) fundamentally, and that’s what we need to focus on. Did it change it to the point enough that it’s affected human health?” asks Osgard.

She doesn’t think that the AER or other authorities will use their resources to get to the bottom of it.

“I’ve never seen Alberta Health, or the provincial government do anything for communities based on that (cancer) report or try and figure out why. I don’t even trust them…and I’ve worked for them.”

‘My heart was so sore’

Margo Vermillion is a Dene/Cree Elder who grew up in Fort Chipewyan. She was shattered to learn of the tailings spills.

“When I heard about the tailings spill — my heart was so sore. Especially when I hear about the children, it really hurts my heart. I thought, ‘if our waters go, we’re gonna go too.’”

She also doesn’t trust the oil industry, or the AER, and doesn’t have faith that they will remediate the harm to the water and environment.

“You know, they’ve had broken promises,” she says while sitting on a washed-up log on a sandy beach on Lake Athabasca, near the Fort Chipewyan townsite.

Her honeyed voice is crisp with certainty.

Margo Vermillion is a Dene/Cree Elder who grew up in Fort Chipewyan.

“Their words mean nothing. You know, if they came and decided to live here in the community and to be amongst us, to experience what it is that we experience, maybe I’ll listen to them. But they were already covering up that spill… I don’t know anymore. I mean, when they investigate them on their own like that, nothing really happens.”

Vermillion is a survivor of the former Holy Angels Residential School and compares the trauma she endured there to when she was evacuated during the wildfires in late May. In her wildest dreams, she never imagined the entire community would be forced out by a climate-induced inferno.

She ended up having to stay in Fort McMurray at a hotel for over three weeks. After a few days, memories of her childhood began surfacing.

“On the fifth day, I got up. I sat on my bed. And the first thought was, ‘I want to go home’. And then, it was like, bang, something just hit me,” she holds her hand to her heart and squints her brown, weathered eyes.

“I all of a sudden felt like I turned into a little girl again. And I cried. I had the biggest meltdown because I thought about being in the residential school and how every morning, every day when you wake up, that’s the first thought you had, ‘I want to go home’. And then it turned to two weeks and then three weeks — it was really, really tough.”

Recently she travelled up Lake Athabasca with her son to celebrate her 70th birthday. The two found a spot to have a cookout and to her surprise, she discovered an eagle feather — considered a sacred gift — on the beach. To give thanks, she said she wandered off by herself to pray for the land.

But she encountered an overpowering grief there.

“I really believe that our waters are crying for us to help them. Like everything else that’s connected to the waters — our plants, our trees, our insects. They’re also crying. Today you look at our water and it’s sad — you can feel the sadness from them.”

“You wouldn’t believe, you could almost feel that the trees and the plants were in mourning. Because of them being burnt. I just stood there, and I sang for them. Because I really felt their sadness of the destruction that’s happening to our earth.”

She goes on to recall the interconnectedness her ancestors had with the territory and their knowledge of the waterways. They knew how to “read the water” and when it was safe to travel; they also knew it was healthy.

But now, the water is dying, she says, with tears of anguish running down her cheeks. “I really believe that our waters are crying for us to help them. Like everything else that’s connected to the waters — our plants, our trees, our insects. They’re also crying. Today you look at our water and it’s sad — you can feel the sadness from them.”

She’s tired of dealing with industry and provincial executives periodically visiting Fort Chipewyan to hold shallow meetings with committees she’s sat on throughout the years. In her opinion, industry only wants to “buy off our people,” and they’re using the “same old tricks” that they’ve been using for 150 years.

She wants outside officials to take traditional ecological knowledge and Elders’ testimony into consideration when it comes to assessing the impacts of their projects.

“I mean, we don’t need scientists to tell us, we have the proof here. We have our Elders that talk about the changes that they see. That’s our scientists. But now, today, if you don’t have your papers and you’re a scientist, nothing else is true, right?”

In the community of Fort Chipewyan, there are documented high rates of cancer and other diseases with no explanation as to the source, and a recent major tailings pond spill has underscored their concerns.

She walks to the water, lays down tobacco and starts to pray. Then, she raises her hands to the air in silence. The wind gently sweeps back her white-grey hair, her closed eyes release more tears, and she begins to sing.

She connects the water to the inherent makeup of human beings. When the water is sick, it brings death to all living things.

“We were born in a sack of water. And that gave us life. So, when you have waters that are dying, and their spirit is dying, you know, we can’t drink our waters today. So, we turn and we drink the bottle of water and it’s dead water. How can that rejuvenate us?” she asks.

“So, I think that’s one of the reasons why many of our people are not well. And the fish is no longer what the fish used to be. You can catch a fish; you can fix the fish. The meat is so soft. It used to be like a firmer meat on the fish. It’s not like that anymore.”

Meanwhile, Chief Adam isn’t convinced Imperial Oil has fully contained the Kearl Mine leak. He’s determined to keep the pressure on industry, the AER and governments to ensure they rectify their shortfalls.

“To be honest with everybody, this is a wake-up call for Canada, and this is a wake-up call for Alberta, and this is a downfall for the AER. Because they failed to uphold the protection of this community,” he says.

Despite the concerns of local Indigenous communities, the federal government is currently considering adopting regulations under the Fisheries Act for the release of “treated” oil sands mining wastewater into the Athabasca River. These regulations aim to permit the release of treated tailings into the environment while adhering to stringent effluent quality standards, apparently minimizing potential risks to the environment. The new regulations are expected to be finalized by 2025.

Chief Adam says it won’t happen on his watch.

Keep the conversation going. Journalist Brandi Morin recently hosted a panel on YouTube with Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, toxicologist Mandy Olsgard, physician Dr. John O’Connor, and lawyer Steven Donziger.

Fisher, hunter and trapper Castor is also pissed at the prospect of further toxic damage to the region.

“It’s so crazy…They’re scrambling. What do we do? How do we get rid of this? And now they’re proposing to the government to let them release it, because they say it’s safe and treated now, into the river? They can’t even contain what they have, so that’s pretty scary if they can’t contain what they have…

I’ve spent 22 years on that river, and then sixteen years hunting on that river. I think I have enough experience to know that there’s something happening in those areas. I’m not saying I know everything, but I know there’s something going on.”

Castor reminisces about the old days when the water was clean. Elders once dipped cups into the river and drank the fresh water. Now, he carries bottled water with him everywhere he goes. The mere thought of drinking the fresh water is out of the question, and it saddens him.

“I would never, I would never do that. I would never take a cup out of my boat and put it in the water and put it for boiling or consumption.”

The one necessity he makes sure to stock up on, in bottled form, when he’s out on the territory, is bottled water. . “Here’s an old story I was told about water; when you run out of supplies, you usually go home from the bush. Nowadays, if you run out of water, you have no choice but to go home.”

Brandi Morin
Brandi Morin
  Brandi Morin is an award-winning Cree/Iroquois/French journalist from Treaty 6 territory in Alberta. For the last 10 years Brandi has specialized in sharing Indigenous stories, some of which helped spark change and reconciliation in Canada’s political, cultural and social landscapes. Her most notable work has appeared in publications and on networks including Ricochet, National Geographic, Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, VICE, ELLE Canada, the Toronto Star, the New York Times, Huffpost, Indian Country Today Media Network, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News, and CBC Indigenous.
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