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‘Downstream’ Aboriginal Activists Blast the Tar Sands

Nova Scotians asked to take action

by Jane KirbyBen Sichel

"People are dying in my community of rare cancers," Jada Voyageur of Fort Chipewyan told a crowd at a rally on Sunday.  Photo: Ron Sawlor
"People are dying in my community of rare cancers," Jada Voyageur of Fort Chipewyan told a crowd at a rally on Sunday. Photo: Ron Sawlor

More than 100 people came to St. Andrew’s Church on Coburg Rd. Tuesday night to hear two young Aboriginal activists describe the Alberta Tar Sands’ effects on their communities.

“It takes three to five barrels of water to produce one barrel of oil from the tar sands”, explains Jada Voyageur of Fort Chipewyan, a Cree and Dene community near the Sands where residents are experiencing severe health and environmental problems. “ You can just imagine what they are taking out, and worse, what they are putting back into our water system.” 

Residents of Fort Chipewyan have found high levels of arsenic, mercury and other toxic chemicals in their water supply that have leaked from tailings ponds downstream. The fish and game that First Nations communities rely upon for their food supply have also been contaminated.

“These are the kinds of fish that my people are finding all the time” says Voyageur, showing an image of a diseased-looking and deformed fish. “And they say there's no impact”. 

The Alberta Tar Sands is considered the largest industrial project in human history. The process used to extract oil from bitumen is energy and water intensive, and the tar sands are poised to become Canada's single largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Deforestation is occurring at a rate second only to the rate of destruction of the Amazon rainforest, and the area slated for tar sands development is expected to at least triple by 2015.

Voyageur describes the construction of a new port and road that would be used to ship equipment for the tar sands from China, and that would further encroach on First Nations communities. “I'm against it, because the road will cut right through my reserve”, says Voyageur.

“When Settlers first came here they pushed us all onto little tracts of reserve land” adds Simon Reece, Downstream Coordinator for the Keepers of the Athabasca. “Now our reserve lands are getting smaller and smaller because there's industry surrounding all of our reserves, and there's nowhere for our people to go”.

Voyageur and Reece show images of the tar sands development and tell of the difficulty of fighting against the Albertan economic mega-boom.

 “Some [in the Aboriginal community] see it as a way to boost the economy” says Voyageur, explaining to an audience member why authorities on reserves were permitting oil exploration to take place.

Reece, who once worked for Syncrude himself, disagrees. “A lot of the jobs that First Nations people get within industry are labour jobs, janitorial jobs, basically jobs that no one else wants to do”.

Once Reece began to learn of the massive effects of the bitumen mega-projects, he and his friends began to quit their jobs.

“We are the land, and the land is us” he says, adding that Nova Scotians are proud of their land too. “How would you feel if someone came and said that the water’s no good, or you’re not really using the land?”

Gretchen Fitzgerald of the Sierra Club, who co-sponsored the event with the Interfaith Coalition for Climate Justice and the Council of Canadians, drew links to energy issues in Nova Scotia, emphasizing that citizens concerned about the Tar Sands should take action with the provincial, not just the federal government; encouraging development of a renewable energy economy so that so many Nova Scotians would not have to migrate West to work.

Audience members also viewed a short film chronicling the case of Dr. John O’Connor, a physician in Fort Chipewyan who alerted health authorities in 2006 to higher-than-average occurrences of rare cancers in the community.

In response to his alert, O’Connor was charged by both the Albertan and Canadian governments for “raising undue” alarm. (All but one of the charges have since been dropped.)

“Our land is in chaos, and our communities are also in chaos” says" Reece. “We cannot further allow this industry to do whatever they want. In the end it's going to affect the whole world”.

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