Alberta Sweetgrass - September 2008
Conference gives voice to Fort Chipewyan residents BY THOMAS J BRUNER Sweetgrass Staff Writer FORT CHIPEWYAN
For most people, jumping in the lake on a hot summer day is one of those treasured, cliché moments in life. For Fort Chipewyan residents, jumping in the lake on a hot summer day feels more like a life or death decision. Fort Chipewyan is a small hamlet located on the northwestern tip of Lake Athabasca, in northern Alberta. The Fort was named after the Chipewyan First Nation living in the area, and is one of the oldest European settlements in the province. A troubling rise in cases of cancer in Fort Chipewyan has residents looking towards Lake Athabasca and the hotbed of industrial activity that takes place nearby. Many experts have claimed that only large municipalities should see this many cases of cancer. The Keepers of the Water: Water is Boss conference held in August has delved into the issues and the options. The conference was actually
the third installment in a yearly endeavor to invoke some serious changes in Alberta’s treatment of the environment. The conference began in the river’s origins in Jasper and toured along the lake, finally wrapping up in Fort Chipewyan. It plays host to concerned citizens, environmental experts, activists, and leaders. It gives everyone an opportunity to raise issues and voice concerns. The next installment of Keepers of the Water is scheduled to take place in Saskatchewan next year. Aside from the looming health concerns, First Nations are also concerned about a massive disturbance to their way of life, which include fishing and hunting. There have already been reports of misshapen growths in the fish of Lake Athabasca. While most fingers would point at the booming oilsands developments, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation claimed that they are also to blame. In an interview with the Slave River Journal he stated, “We, as First Nation people
“Clearly government and many observers don’t get the spiritual connection that First Nations have with the land." —David Swann are partly to blame. We left the land.” He went on to explain his beliefs that going back to the “old ways” may help rectify the situation. He also stated that many First Nations have taken on values that do not fulfill their lives. Others believe that the oilsands companies are completely to blame. Individuals such as Lionel Lepine, who has expressed that the oilsands companies do not see Fort Chipewyan residents as humans, but as First Nations peoples they have to speak to before they do their job. He even mused that had the water been going in the other direction, there would be swift action as Lepine believes the government would not let that happen to “their people.” It appears that many First
Nations have resolved to be perseverant in the matter, and will go to great lengths to see what they believe is right. That became quite apparent as George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree First Nation traveled all the way to Norway to get his message across. Quite simply, he wants all further development from a Norwegian company to cease and desist until all environmental implications are understood. He hopes that if Norway understands the potential damage, the development will stop completely. Proving that the mysterious cancer cases are directly correlated to the lackluster water and that is caused by the industrial operations will be a tall order, however it is essential to forcing rigorous changes. Events such as the annual
Keepers of the Water conferences certainly seem to be a powerful step in the healthiest direction. “I was very moved as many were by the emotion and concern about people’s health and their future,” said Liberal MLA and environment critic David Swann. “Clearly government and many observers don’t get the spiritual connection that 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." There have been calls for a moratorium, and Swann agrees that is a reasonable measure. “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.” To learn more about the Keepers of the Water, go to, www.keepersofthewater.ca.
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