Fort Chip Natives Oppose More Oil Business

Cree nation debates potential health risks due to increased oil production

By Clint Buehler

FORT CHIPEWYAN, AB – The incidence of cancer and other serious diseases is worse here than elsewhere . . . or not. This alleged higher incidence is caused by the pollution of water and air by oilsands plants upstream on the Athabasca River . . . or not.

Accusations and denials, anecdotal evidence and “expert” refutations, political pressure vs. economic opportunity-all unresolved (and maybe irresolvable) issues and conflicts that ultimately come down to a stalemate between rampant resource development and the preservation of traditional (and healthy) lifestyle and land use.

The most recent focus on the situation came at Alberta Energy and Utilities Board (AEUB) hearings on the Suncor application to double its production to 500,000 barrels a day.

The Mikisew Cree First Nation here strongly opposed the application, citing its potential damage to traditional land and lifestyle, including spirituality, hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering of herbal medicines. In filing its opposition, the Mikisew acknowledged that its stand could well jeopardize the extensive current and future employment, contract and other economic opportunities afforded by its association with Suncor and other resource development corporations.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, the other First Nation at Fort Chipewyan, took a different stance, signing an agreement for employment and contracts for its members and affiliated companies, then supporting the Suncor expansion application. Since then, however, the First Nation’s Chief Archie Cyprien has expressed his concerns over health issues in the community.

Countering the concerns of the two First Nations was a report released by Alberta Health and Wellness and the Alberta Cancer Board, entered into evidence at the AEUB hearing, that said “the rates of cholangiocarcinoma, leukemia and lymphoma and other cancers are not elevated among residents in Fort Chipewyan.” The results were based on cancer registry statistics from 1983 to 2005, with main analysis comparing the community to the rest of the province from 1995 to 2005.

Despite that report, however, a steering committee composed of health region officials, community residents, business people and a variety of other stakeholders will continue to pursue the issue.
And the community doctor and medical examiner who sounded the alarm is adamant in defending his conclusions and concerns.

Shortly after Dr. John O’Connor arrived in the community in 2001, he diagnosed a patient with a rare cancer of the bile duct. After some research, he concluded that three to five residents had died of that rare disease (cholangiocarcinoma) over the past five years in a community with a population of 1,200.

That disease normally occurs at the rate of one in 100,000, so the number of cases in Fort Chipewyan would normally be expected in a city the size of Halifax.

What is even more telling is that none of the other communities Dr. O’Connor visited in the area experience the health problems such as leukemia, lymphoma, colon cancer, cervical cancer, lupus and Graves’ disease. Further, none of the other communities in the area draw their water from the Athabasca River, reinforcing the suspicions of some that waste water from the many oilsands plants upstream are the cause of the problem.

“We have to deal with this, and we have to deal with it now,” says Chief Cyprien.

The Fort Chip health situation is one of the more dramatic issues in a much larger dispute over the proliferation of oil sands plants in place, under construction or planned for the near future.

It is estimated that oilsands and other resource development activity in northern Alberta will directly impact more than 20 percent of the total area of the province, most of it treasured boreal forest, and the habitat of many species of animals, birds and fish, an environmental treasure in themselves, and integral to the traditional lifestyle of the indigenous people of the area.

One of the conditions for open pit mining of the oilsands is that the overburden removed in the process is restored, and plant life replaced. There is a perception that this restoration has been ineffective in that plant life is too slowly recovering, and the habitat will not be adequate for birds and animals to return significantly for many years.

Critics such as the Pembina Institute’s Energy Watch warn that expansion is so rapid and so extensive that resulting damage to the eco-system may irreparable if that development is not slowed and staged more responsibly. One critical factor is the enormous amount of water required for oilsands plants, and the long-term impact that will have not just for the area, but for everyone everywhere linked to that water system.

And the concern doesn’t stop there.

The City of Fort McMurray is strained beyond its means to provide the infrastructure required by its constantly booming population-housing, roads, medical services, schools, water, sewers, recreation facilities, etc.

The Member of the Alberta Legislature (MLA) for the area, Guy Boutilier, is put in the position of being a master juggler. As Alberta environment minister, he is supposed to be stweward of the eco-system. As MLA he is charged with ensuring adequate infrastructure. As a member of the Alberta Cabinet, he is expected to support the industries-many of them in his riding-that have contributed unprecedented revenue to the province and enabled it not only to operate with a surplus each year, but to retire its debt.

Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Time will certainly tell.