Tar Sands, Water and the First Nations of Alberta

“I don’t know what’s happening to this place, it won’t last 10 -15 years if we lose our water.”

Gabe Burke, Fort Chipewyan

Water in Anzac Alberta, Tar Sands Story

Simon Reece from Anzac, Alberta, stands on the pier on Gregoire Lake. Without the huge amount of fresh water resources in Northern Alberta, the Tar Sands would not be able to operate. Oil companies don't pay anything for the water removed from the Athabaska river, which they subsequently pollute, requiring residents downstream to buy bottled water to drink.

Syncrude Oil Processing Plant

The Syncrude oil processing plant. Average greenhouse gas emissions for oil sands extraction and upgrading are estimated to be 3.2 to 4.5 times as intensive per barrel as for conventional crude oil produced in Canada or the United States.

cemetary fort chipewyan

The cemetary in Fort Chipewyan. Since the arrival of the Tar Sands, more cancer is appearing in Fort Chipewyan then in a regular community this size.

The Athabaskan River delta is one of the largest water systems in Canada and a key component of the livelihood of the Dineh, Cree and Metis that live along its’ banks. However, upstream from communities like Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan the out of control Tar Sands Industry is polluting the system and rendering it unusable. I was recently in Alberta, photographing and interviewing the First Nations  to help publicize their story.

Despite cozy government and industry relations claiming that industry is not affecting the water quality, the evidence is mounting and exposing their flawed science and PR campaign. A recent report by several authors including acclaimed scientist Dr. David Schindler has the government of Alberta scrambling to cover up and increase their PR. “Contrary to claims made by industry and government in the popular press, the oil sands industry substantially increases loadings of toxic PPE (priority pollutants) to the AR (Athabasca River) and its tributaries via air and water pathways.” David Schindler.

Athabaska river

Residents of Fort Chipewyan sail down the Athabaska River. Many residents of Fort Chipewyan have cabins on the land. They try to maintain some of their attachment to Mother Earth, which is exceedingly difficult with the dangers of eating the fish and disappearance of wildlife due to industrial development upstream.

When I was in the region, I heard again and again that people don’t trust the water. The water is suspected to be part of the cause of a drastic increase in cancer cases in Fort Chipewyan and is widely cited as the reason why the fish are appearing with tumours. For a community that used to rely on fish as a food source, now when a fish appears at the table, the first question asked is, ‘Where did it come from?”.

“The Athabaska river is like a main artery of the world, it’s the blood going down, if your blood is polluted, you aren’t going to last damn long and that is what is happening to our country and earth. All the rivers are getting polluted so bad. I pity young people now, there are rough times ahead. Water could be about 10bucks a liter in ten years, how are you going to survive. ” Gabe Burke

It is shocking that the Canadian and Alberta governments continue to put industry profits above the health of people and the environment. However, the drive and energy of the young people and leaders within the communities are succeeding in securing support from a wide range of groups and individuals including James Cameron, director of Avatar. The tide is shifting.

Eriel Deranger

Eriel Deranger works and lives in Edmonton. She is originally from Fort Chipewyan and is one of many young indigenous people that have dedicated their lives to healing Mother Earth.

It is time that the truth be told about the water situation in this beautiful part of Canada and I join the call for a comprehensive study on the water system, free of industry input and a moratorium on further Tar Sands development until responsible ways of developing are found.

This post is part of the Blog Action Day #10 focusing on water.

Tar Sands and the First Nations – Selects

The crux of any environmental industrial development is the relationship between people on the land and the newly manufactured landscape. Rarely has the coverage of the Tar Sands in Northern Alberta gone beyond environmental impact and touched on the story of the impact on First Nations culture. Yet, this development is having a profound affect on the lifestyle of the indigenous peoples of the region.

Fort Chipewyan is experiencing elevated levels of cancer believed to be caused by toxins in the Athabasca from major industrial developments upstream. On the other hand, communities have gained employment. What does the boom mean for quality of life, how does it relate to cultural heritage of the indigenous, and what cost or benefit is this project having on the indigenous cultures of Northern Alberta?

The following images are the initial selects from an Audio/Visual project that attempts to answer some of these questions.


Tar Sands – Selects from Indigenous Project in Northern Alberta – Images by Robert vanWaarden

Activism, Coal and Arizona

“Just seeing the future for us and knowing that they [our parents] wanted a better future for us, fern benallyI have the same feeling for, not myself, but the kids and for my relatives and that something better will be in the future for them, that keeps me going. Knowing that we have succeeded in one step and maybe we can continue on and see a better future for all of us.

[One of] the other things that keeps me going is knowing that one of my great aunts and my great uncles [had] respiratory problems. Their breath was taken away slowly inch by inch, feeling like they were being suffocated. When they died, thinking about them and thinking that how much better it would be for the rest of the people here. I don’t want them to die that way anymore, I want them to be able to breathe.” Fern Benally, Navajo Activist.

Shadia Fayne Wood from Project Survival Media and I just finished an assignment in Arizona, covering an incredible group of activists that are working hard to stop dirty energy on the Navajo Reservation and pushing the envelope on clean energy development. We are focusing on the closing of one of the coal mines in the area, the tactics that were used and what this means to the people affected by the closure.

The former coalmine is in the Benally’s backyard, land that has been the families for thousands of years. For the last 30 years, 24 hours a day, the large coal trucks would rumble by the house and the coal crusher would drown out nature. Now, thanks to incredible co-operation and dedication amongst groups like the Black Mesa Water Coalition, Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club, the life of mine permit was revoked in January. Now, the Benally’s can hear the birds sing and watch the stars like their ancestors did long before Europeans came here.

There are still many examples of environmental racism here in Arizona and across our planet. But, it is important to celebrate victories and share the knowledge so that we can all move towards a sustainable future. More to come on this project in the future.