A RIVER PILGRIMAGE TO THE TAR SANDS – Part Three
Part Three: Don’t drink the water
Terry Dance-Bennink spends time with First Nations families suffering from the toxic air and water in Fort MacKay and interviews Dr. John O’Connor who says don’t drink the tap water!
First Nations hospitality
The dirt road into Fort McKay is a bumpy ride. It’s currently being expanded and paved and is home to 700+ treaty First Nations people and a Metis community. We met Celina, who has dark curly hair and a spark in her eye, at her modest home beside the river and drove to her sister Clara’s house. Like Celina, Clara was born and raised in Fort McKay and she welcomed us warmly. She’d prepared fried bannock with home-made jams and a lovely stew for us all. She lives in a new subdivision in a modern house but the tap water is undrinkable.
“Our new-borns come home from Fort McMurray and within a week, they show signs of asthma,” Clara told us. “We have to drink bottled water and can only shower briefly in lukewarm water because it’s so toxic from chemicals used by the oil companies. We have all kinds of skin rashes. Dr. O’Connor tells our pregnant women and new-borns to completely avoid tap water.” One of us went to the sink to wash our hands, and we were quickly told to stop.
Celina and Clara told us about Moose Lake – a sacred area of native reserves which the Dover/Brion Energy project intends to mine. “I grew up in Moose Lake in the bush with my six brothers,” Celina told us proudly. “I know everything and anything about trap lines. Red cranberries were everywhere. And the foxes, lynx, squirrels, even wolverines, are coming back. They’re not being hunted as much. On our recent summer trip to Moose Lake, we came back with three white fish. But if that mine goes, this will all change.”
Earlier this year, the Fort McKay First Nation and Metis community opposed the portion of the project nearest the reserve and requested a 20 km no-development buffer zone around Gardiner and Namur Lakes. They also asked for assurance of environmental best practices and an access management plan.
Despite evidence from 24 expert witnesses at the public hearing, the Alberta Energy Regulator rejected all three requests. The government claimed “the economic impacts of the buffer zone are too significant to lose and that government policy is to fully develop the oil sands.” (Red River Current)
“Every mining request is approved, so no wonder we lose hope,” Celina commented sadly. The fight is not over yet, but outside support and media attention is crucial.
Despite protests by the band council, they’re in a bind. In 2010 alone, the oil companies contracted more than $1.3 billion worth of goods from aboriginal-owned businesses in the region and industry gave $5.5 million to support aboriginal community programs (Upstream Dialogue). Most employable people in Fort McKay work for the oil companies. Are you going to bite the hand that feeds you? But it sure smacks of an industry buy-off until the native people either die, move away or shake hands.
A gentle warrior
We’re shocked by the polluted water and toxic air and can’t understand why nothing has been done. We learn even more when we interview whistle-blower, Dr. John O’Connor.
Dr. O’Connor is a family physician and director of Health and Human Services in Fort McKay. He first started working with Fort Chipewyan residents in 2000 and was concerned by the high incidence of cancer among the 1200 people living downstream from the oil sands. When he raised his concerns publicly, Health Canada supported by Alberta Health raised spurious complaints and his medical license was on the line for almost three years.
He was subsequently cleared after public protest and evidence from the Alberta Cancer Board that, indeed, cancer rates were 30% higher in the area than normal in 2009. The prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published Prof. David Schindler’s et al findings related to heavy metals and other contaminants emanating from the tarsands in 2009-10.
O’Connor is a gentle warrior. “I have stacks of documentation concerning the high incidence of respiratory disease, skin conditions, rashes, digestive disorders and cancer,” he told us. “I have lines of people coming into the clinic with rashes. There’s dust everywhere.” We could attest to that as our car was covered in it.
O’Connor had a conference call with Health Canada in February 2011 about the town’s water quality. The water has been regularly tested for e coli and more often now for disinfectant compounds (DBPs). “But we still have elevated levels of DBPs,” he pointed out. “One hundred is the upper limit and our levels have reached close to 200, double the safety level, since 1994. The level ranges from 7-11 in Edmonton and Fort McMurray and 180-260 in Fort McKay.”
“Why has nothing been done?” I asked him. “If this was Victoria, it wouldn’t be tolerated for a minute and the media would be all over it.”
“Two years ago, the government announced a letter of intent to conduct a health study,” O’Connor replied. “The band chief asked me to lead the process. A few months ago, we stopped hearing anything from the government. In essence, the communities of McKay and Chipewyan have been abandoned by Alberta and Canada in terms of health studies.”
“We had a support group for close to 100 people suffering from cancer in Fort McMurray a few years ago,” O’Connor continued. “The Canadian Cancer Society helped facilitate the process, but even this organization was denied access to information by the Alberta health ministry, which cited privacy as the reason.
“I’m curious why Public Health has never questioned the government on the issue of human health impacts downstream,” he said. “Not even once. And I demand the governments of Alberta and Canada be accountable to the people who have to endure the as-yet unstudied risks of merely living downstream.
“How can we support you?” we asked him.
“Talk to people – spread the word,” he urged us. “There’s no point watching your Ps and Qs – just say it all. But there has to be a balance, because Fort McKay would fall through the floor if industry pulled out completely. If I had three months, I’d be all over this, filing requests for information and talking to everyone I could.”
A pipeline for clean water
We returned to our hotel in a sober mood after this exchange with John O’Connor. The next day we drove back north to Fort McKay for lunch with Celina Harpe. She served us baked bannock with raisons “for special people” she told us, along with a delicious moose stew – a first for me. Celina was more than willing to share her life story with us, but focused a lot on the health issues in her community.
“In the old days, not many people died in one year. But we lost ten people last year – seven adults and three kids,” she explained. “Ten in one year is awful. My husband, Ed, sleeps all the time now because he has a cancerous tumour. When he takes a bath, I have to put antibiotic salve on him due to the water. My hands hurt so from the tap water. My friend has big brown marks all over her. Now they’re talking of a swimming pool in town! Are they going to put tailings pond water in it? I worry so about all the children.”
“There are dollars for housing but no clean water or air,” she pointed out. “They’re going to build an extended care building right beside the river. But what about the toxic water? If they can build a pipeline between here and the USA, why not a pipeline for clean water between Fort McMurray and Fort McKay?
“They like it when people die here – I’ve said that in meetings. Families are moving away one at a time when they have the money.”
“Everyone’s related here. We’re like family. My sister, Clara, and I always go wherever there’s a need. I don’t like politics because it gets in the way and material stuff is just material stuff. As long as I pray to God – that’s what matters. We live with love and faith. What more can you ask for? That’s the way my mother lived.”
“Lots of people came to the healing walk through the tailings ponds from Crane Lake to Syncrude this summer,” she told us. “We need all the help we can get. I didn’t go because I wasn’t feeling well. Everywhere we go here, there are gates and this is our land. It’s not right!”
After three hours of sharing, Celina wrapped up with a moving story about her grandfather’s prediction of the devastation of their land.
“My grandfather used to sit on top of the hill – only he had a house there then. He’d look at the river for hours. I ran over one day and sat with him when I was a little girl. He said, ‘You know, God gave this river and ice and clear water – it’s so beautiful. In the future, if you have children, you’re going to have to tell them the white man is going to spoil that water. You’re going to have to buy clean water and they’re going to dig big holes for oil. There’s lots of oil here. They will tear up mother earth. Nice trees will be torn up. I don’t know where your grandchildren are going to go after that. I don’t like it but I see it.”
“I still remember what he said,” Celina says. “Now I think about it and he was so, so right. My grandfather’s hunting ground is right where Suncor is now.”
We left Celina later that afternoon, grateful for her incredible hospitality given all she and her community have suffered at the hands of white people. The next morning, we drove south and began the journey home with somewhat heavy hearts but honoured to have met such brave souls.
Up Next –
Part Four: Lessons learned
After a disheartening visit to Alberta’s tarsands, Terry Dance-Bennink reflects on what can be done to support the people, creatures and land affected by tarsands development.