Drilling, Dollars and Disease Down North

The discovery of oil-rich tar sands brought a modern-day gold rush to a remote stretch of Western Canada. But some locals fear that disaster may also loom beneath the surface.

Drilling, Dollars and Disease Down North

Moose nose soup was not delicious. Needs salt, I thought, as I forced a swallow of the hot, fatty broth, but I was alone in my displeasure. The girl across the picnic table was slurping hers from its polystyrene bowl with concentrated enthusiasm. “What do you do here in Fort Chipewyan?” I asked, buying time, hoping no one would notice my slow soup consumption. “Mmf,” she said, and swallowed a large spoonful and cleared her throat. “I’m a nurse on the medevac helicopter.” Like just about everyone else, she was wearing sweats and a windbreaker, her long black hair tied up behind a pink visor in a loose ponytail. I peppered her with questions about her life — was she from here? Yes. Did she have a lot of family here? Yes, and a son. She looked like she was in her early twenties.

It was late August 2013, and I had just flown into Fort Chipewyan, a small and remote indigenous community in northeastern Alberta that has made international headlines for its often-contentious relationship to the heart of the region’s economy: the tar sands. The community is so far removed that its only link to the outside world in the warmer months is a thin airstrip; in the winter, a road hewed out of ice offers a temporary land route. I had flown in on a ten-seat plane.

A tailings pond, which holds wastewater left over from the mining process
A tailings pond, which holds wastewater left over from the mining process

The community sits on the edge of Lake Athabasca and at the end of the Mackenzie River basin, a system of looping waterways that once supported the massive fur-trading industry that first brought Europeans to this part of Canada. Today, the same river system provides freshwater to the massive oil mining industry that propels the local economy, and which has provoked protest around the world.

Fort Chipewyan (pronounced “chip-a-wan”) was originally established as a fur-trading post in the late eighteenth century, and it was the first permanent human settlement in Alberta. Today, the largely aboriginal community is home to the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation — a Canadian First Nation is roughly equivalent to an American Indian tribe — as well as a Metís community. (In Canada, “aboriginal” is a preferred term for native or indigenous people.) There is also a smattering of non-indigenous residents. In total, about 1,200 people call Fort Chip home.

Several studies have shown that residents of Fort Chipewyan are suffering from high rates of cancer, particularly cervical cancer and a rare bile duct cancer, and many who live here believe their illnesses are a result of pollution from the tar sands’ strip mines, oil wells, tailings pond, and upgrading plants. A three-year study of ninety-four Fort Chipewyan residents published in 2014 found that twenty of its subjects had been diagnosed with twenty-three separate cases of cancer. Multiple studies have observed a high concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs —carcinogens associated with oil mining — and heavy metals in the wildlife, the air, the water, the ground, and the snow that covers the region for most of the year.

Terry prepares moose nose soup at Fort Chipewyan.
Terry prepares moose nose soup at Fort Chipewyan.

I chewed on some rubbery cartilage, delaying the next sip of the greasy broth. “If your teeth are strong enough,” Terry, the preparer of the moose nose, leaned in from my right and imparted, “you can eat the cartilage, too!” She grinned, displaying her teeth. “Mine are strong enough.” When I’d arrived at the campsite, Terry had been circling a rack constructed of large, roughly-hewn wooden sticks, from which strips of moose meat were suspended above a crackling fire. In one hand she held what I later learned was the moose nose — a Jello-like chunk of yellowish flesh — while with the other she scraped off a brown hide with a large metal knife in quick, whipping strokes. I was told that moose nose was a real delicacy — “one of the best parts!” — and we were lucky that a generous hunter had donated an entire moose carcass to the gathering.

The Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations are small, and yet they are fighting a battle with colossal stakes. There are those in Fort Chipewyan who say they are sick, afraid, and even dying from the effects of the oil mining. They say they have watched critical species of fish and game that they once depended on for sustenance slowly disappear from the region. Yet the province of Alberta depends on the oil industry for the billions of dollars it pays in taxes and royalties, not to mention more than 100,000 high-paying jobs. With so much money at stake, how can this small community make itself heard?

Underneath the spongy, moss-coated earth on which Fort Chipewyan rests is one of the largest deposits of bituminous sands in the world. The thick, molasses-like bitumen — this low-grade form of petroleum has been also been characterized as “pitch,” “tar” and “asphalt” at various points in history — is combined with rough sand and clay to form the oil sands, or tar sands. This is the largest deposit of its kind on the planet, and the potential riches contained therein have been valued in the trillions.

This oil is controversial, to put it mildly. Because the petroleum contained in the sands is in a near-solid, low-grade form, a complex and carbon-intensive process is required in order to separate the bitumen from the sand and transform it into a state liquid enough that it can be pushed through pipelines to refineries and markets outside Canada — the resulting product is the infamous “dilbit” (diluted bitumen) that is so difficult to clean in the event of a spill.

Syncrude's Mildred Lake plant, north of Fort McMurray.
Syncrude’s Mildred Lake plant, north of Fort McMurray.

Mining the molasses-like oil sands was an endeavor only recently made profitable as a result of much-improved technology, the waning supply of easy-to-reach oil wells around the world, and the Middle East turmoil that has led the U.S. to seek out non-OPEC sources of imported crude in the name of “energy independence.” In 2013, almost two million barrels of oil were extracted from the sands each day — about ten percent of what the U.S. consumed daily. The laborious process by which bitumen is extracted from the soil and refined into crude emits several times more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than does a standard oil well; this is why so many environmentalists fiercely oppose it. Former NASA climatologist turned climate activist James Hansen predicts that continued mining of the tar sands will mean “game over for the climate.”

In Alberta, the general mood toward the industry verges on celebratory. The high-paying on-site work has brought a long boom in wealth and population to what was once a scantly inhabited corner of the province. The population of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo, which includes Fort Chipewyan as well as Fort McMurray, the industry’s urban epicenter, has doubled in size over the past decade — and about a third of its population of 116,000 are temporary laborers living in corporate dormitories built near the mining and upgrading operations. On-site work for oil sands giants is coveted: A starting salary for a heavy-equipment operator with just a high school education can land in the low six figures. A municipal report from 2011 lists the average disposable income in the region as $131,287. (All figures noted in this piece are in Canadian dollars.) The province is Canada’s wealthiest.

Alberta’s cities all support the industry: Corporate executives live in the shiny skyscrapers of Calgary, while the capital, Edmonton, provides a transportation and manufacturing hub, and Fort McMurray is home to the many on-site laborers who choose to settle in the region permanently. (Others are flown in by company plane from all around Canada, as demand for labor is so high.) The big cities are all south of the Athabasca oil sands, the mining of which occurs mostly to the north of Fort McMurray. The Athabasca River flows north, a rarity that has inspired the local colloquialism “down north.” Fort Chipewyan is Alberta’s northernmost community, and it is about 250 kilometers downstream from the majority of the mining activity.

Driving along Highway 63 to Fort McMurray.
Driving along Highway 63 to Fort McMurray.

A local doctor named John O’Connor made international headlines in 2006 after speaking to a CBC reporter about unusually high rates of an extremely rare bile duct cancer in the small community. Dr. O’Connor suspected that he had found six cases in a population of 1,200, when the expected rate for this particular cancer is 1 out of 100,000. Initially, the government responded by investigating him. The federal health agency, Health Canada, filed several charges against Dr. O’Connor in 2007, including causing “undue alarm” and promoting “a sense of mistrust” of government, charges which were eventually dismissed. A provincial health study was finally conducted in 2009, and found an unexpectedly high rate of cancer in the community. (The study also found that several of Dr. O’Connor’s suspected cases of bile duct cancer were misdiagnosed; it still confirmed that the rate of bile duct cancer and the overall cancer rate in the community was unusually high.) The Alberta Cancer Board, which authored the study, claimed that locating the cause of the cancers was not within the realm of the study, but hypothesized that “high risk behaviors” such as drinking, drug abuse and smoking could be to blame.

The community coordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Eriel Deranger, told me that because Fort Chip has only one small medical clinic, people who become significantly ill often leave the community for the hospitals and doctors in Edmonton or Fort McMurray. Yet the study only included those who had a mailing address with the Fort Chipewyan postal code at the time of diagnosis. A scientist from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Diane Bailey, also pointed this out as a limitation of the study — only counting those with both a cancer diagnosis and a Fort Chipewyan postal code meant that any former residents who were diagnosed with cancer after moving away were not included.

Alberta has promised to follow up with a large-scale baseline health study to determine the cause of the high cancer rate in Fort Chip. But several efforts to implement such a health study failed as a result of disagreements over the focus of the study, its parameters, and who would carry out the research. The most recent attempt fell apart in 2013 when the Mikisew Cree withdrew because they felt the province was excluding them from the process and the study wasn’t focusing specifically on the local cancer rate.

When asked whether the province was working on a study at this point in time, a spokesperson for Alberta Health wrote in an email: “Alberta Health is supportive of an independent study in the community. Before a study can happen, Alberta Health and the community need to meet to determine the focus and structure of the study and who will carry it out. In the meantime, we are working with our partners to create a plan to help prevent the known causes of cancer in this community.”

While a baseline health study that might confirm or disprove a link between the tar sands and the cancer rate in Fort Chip hasn’t yet been conducted, recent environmental studies have produced worrying figures about the level of pollutants released into the local watershed by the mining activity. A recent NRDC report claims that “certain water bodies within the Athabasca watershed now exceed current Canadian standards for pollutants in sediment for seven PAHs, [carcinogenic pollutants], including benzo(a)pyrene, a chemical that has been linked to cancer, genetic damage, reproductive impacts including birth defects and organ damage.” Bailey, who authored that report, explains that the anecdotal evidence of a high illness rate is still worth noting. “We know that with elevated levels of some of these pollutants, you would expect to see increased illness rates,” Bailey said in a phone interview, “so the anecdotal evidence matches what we would expect.”

Flying over Fort McMurray.
Flying over Fort McMurray.

A recent health and environmental study conducted in the region — conducted independently of the province —was the first to find a link between local cancer incidences and industrial pollution. The authors of the 2014 study write, “our analysis showed that cancer occurrence was significantly higher for those who had worked in the Oil Sands and for those that frequently consumed traditional foods and locally caught fish contaminated by heavy metals and PAHs.”

The study’s authors also take note of other illnesses and health concerns in the community, a long list that includes “depression and stress; autoimmune diseases including lupus and rheumatoid arthritis; respiratory illnesses including allergies and asthma; diabetes; circulatory illnesses including hypertension and coronaries; and gastrointestinal illnesses including gallbladders, ulcers, and liver disease, among others.”

I discussed the question of a comprehensive health study via email with Joshua Axelrod, Policy Analyst for the NRDC’s Canada Project, and asked him why he thought it hasn’t yet happened. He wrote back, “it would be speculation to say definitively…the answer is likely political in nature, as development of the tar sands resource is the number one priority of both the provincial and federal governments at this point in time. A study showing a direct link between First Nations cancers and tar sands development would be extremely problematic for these political priorities.” When asked for a response, the spokesperson for Alberta Health said he could not comment on Axelrod’s statement “because of its political nature.”

The lack of a study is certainly not for lack of funds: According to the province’s own website, royalties collected from oil companies in 2013 totaled $4.4 billion, and the province expects royalties from the industry to cumulatively total $600 billion over the next twenty-five years.

To be in Fort Chipewyan is to feel startlingly isolated. When I arrived, I was driven from the tiny airport to the retreat on a long, wide gravel road, one of many that spiral out from the smattering of houses, businesses and community buildings (school, church, café, general store) gathered on the edge of Lake Athabasca. The ground on either side of the road and extending into the forest was coated in a thin layer of mint-green moss. Under the clouded sky of a northern summer afternoon, the blanketed earth seemed to gleam with its own private source of light. From the luminescent soil grew thin, evenly spaced trunks of jack pine trees, spindly and short, their coniferous branches wrapped in a delicate lace of white lichen.

At the end of the short road is Dore Lake, a local nickname for a small inlet of Lake Athabasca. When I first arrived at the campsite, I walked over a gravel road, through the pines and toward the water that shimmered through the trees. In the glassy lake, reeds swayed before a coterie of black loons, who sang to each other as they swam beatifically toward shore. Their haunting calls bounced from the silvery mirror of the lake to its ash-colored banks, and the echoes ran on, and on, and on. It was the wildest landscape I’d ever seen.

I was surprised by how untouched Fort Chipewyan felt. By the time I arrived, I’d read so much about pollution and cancers and dying-out species that I half-expected to witness a blighted place when I finally made it there. But while the area’s natural beauty remains striking, long-time residents and some of the First Nations’ elders believe they are already witnessing the environmental ramifications of industrial pollution.

Several months before I visited, I met with Deranger, the communications coordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and a well-known indigenous rights activist. Deranger sported a stylish, asymmetrical pixie cut and silver feather earrings when we met in a coffee shop near her home in Edmonton. “Until fifteen, twenty years ago, the community of Fort Chipewyan was about eighty percent subsistence,” Deranger said. “That means they got everything they needed from the world around them. But in the last twenty years what we’ve seen is massive industrial development in the Athabasca oil sands, or tar sands, and that has led to massive declines in the population of species that were critical to continuing subsistence lifestyles.”

Deranger spoke matter-of-factly as she described the decline of local species. She told me about the muskrat — “it was a staple, it was a food, plus they used the furs for making mittens, and stuff like that” — which has all but disappeared from the region as the oil industry’s development has spread. Deranger said that her cousin, only a few years older than she is, told her that the last time he saw a muskrat was ten years ago. And that time, he and his buddies pulled the muskrat “out of the water, and it was just swimming really slowly, and it was kind of sick. They pulled it out and he was bleeding from his nose, and bleeding from his mouth, and bleeding from his ears. After that, they never saw a muskrat in the rivers anymore. An entire species has basically disappeared from the region.”

The moose nose soup I ate was at a cultural retreat, an annual event organized by the Mikisew Cree First Nation and sponsored by Syncrude, a corporate giant in the region. (It was one of the first companies to mine the sticky soil for a profit.) The stated goal of the three-day retreat was the promotion of cross-cultural understanding between oil company workers and aboriginal people. The group of First Nations locals and corporate employees camped together among the jack pines and took part in traditional aboriginal activities: hand games, fishing, beading leather. In addition to moose nose soup there was dried moose meat, bannock — a kind of fried bread — and lessons in Cree syllabics. The retreat was in its eighth year.

The gathering was organized by the Mikisew Cree’s Government and Industry Relations office, the arm of the First Nations that is principally involved when oil companies, compelled by constitutional law, consult with local aboriginal people about developing the land on which their ancestors have hunted, fished and trapped for several thousand years. As the night wore on, I was surprised to find that on that day of the retreat, at least, almost every oil worker in attendance seemed to be aboriginal, albeit from other regions and tribes. I saw only three or four other white people, and two that I met were employees of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. I was one of the few for whom the cultural education was truly new.

And I couldn’t finish my moose nose soup. As my tablemates slurped happily, I looked down at the chunks of nose, nobbly bits of cartilage that I’d stripped of meat, floating in the gray-brown sheen of moose nose broth. I wished, guiltily, for a bowl of warmed canned chili — the alternative dinner option. Slowly, as I stirred at the broth with my plastic spoon, others moved from my table, until I was alone. And then I heard, “Someone didn’t finish their moose nose soup!” A young woman with long blonde curls cleared off the table, scooping the Styrofoam bowls and plastic utensils into a thick plastic garbage bag. She pursed her lips sympathetically, and I blushed with guilt. I handed her my bowl, and she tossed it wordlessly into the bag.

Jimmy Kaskamin, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.
Jimmy Kaskamin, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

Within moments of the table being cleared, Jimmy Kaskamin sat down across from me. Kaskamin, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, had long white hair that he had combed into a pompadour and slicked back atop a tanned, weathered face. He was seventy years old. His thick, circular glasses magnified his blue eyes, making him appear a bit frog-like when I looked at him straight on — although he exuded a kind of aged, weathered handsomeness. He had left Fort Chipewyan as a teenager, in 1964, and traveled across Canada working construction jobs until he finally returned in 2006. Kaskamin bluntly summarized what he believed to be the oil industry’s perspective: “We’re supplying the whole country with oil. You need oil. Sure, something happens, a bunch of people die” — here, he was referring to the community’s cancer rate — “well, that’s collateral damage. That’s it, see, that’s the way they explain it. Like it or not, that’s the way it is. If they wiped out this whole community it will be big news, but collateral damage. Progress has got to go.”

Joe Marcel, a member of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
Joe Marcel, a member of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

By that point, Joe Marcel, sixty, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, had seated himself next to Kaskamin. Marcel sported a stark-white mustache that shone bright against his sun-tanned skin before slowly fading into a dark gray and springy goatee. Underneath, his T-shirt demonstrated in pictures the “evolution of the fisherman,” in which a chimpanzee turns into a Neanderthal, which slowly stands upright in order to fly-fish. Marcel listened to Kaskamin and interjected, “With progress, there’s always diseases. We’ve got cancers of every sort. There’s a cancer here that they have to go for dialysis every week. Two times a week they have to go get dialysis in their blood…That’s a big heads up, and it’s scary.”

I asked Marcel for his personal feelings about the oil sands, and he stroked his goatee. After thinking for a second, he told me, “That question you ask, “What do you think about the oil?” I can’t say too much. I can’t brag them up, because I’ve got nothing to say. Nothing good. Sure, it’s good for my son, because he makes $140,000 a year.” Marcel explained that his son lives with him and works on-site for the industry. Kaskamin shook his head, “Like I say, a lot of people don’t like the oil companies. But it’s progress.” The way Kaskamin uses the word is to imply that this “progress” is inevitable — and so the rest of Fort Chipewyan might as well just accept it.

As we continued to talk, Kaskamin discovered that since my arrival earlier that day, I hadn’t been anywhere but the campground. He took it upon himself to show me the sights. It was about eight p.m., and the final rays of the setting sun, filtered through the ever-present clouds, set the gravel road aglitter. I piled into his blue pickup — “a real Indian truck,” he joked — and squinted through the thick cracks that spidered across the window shield. He drove over the crunchy gravel road to a newly paved one. We passed a clearing where a new center, funded by the Mikisew Cree, would be constructed to train its members in the welding trade. The pending construction, like most new buildings around there, would be funded by payments from oil companies. As part of the consultation process, corporations often agree to create community services and construct new buildings, as well as give the First Nations large sums of money.

As we drove, Kaskamin pointed out what he called “toys” — four-wheelers, or quads — and snowmobiles, which everyone there called skidoos, parked in people’s driveways. “See this guy here, with all the toys?” He pointed out his window at a white ranch house as we slowly cruised past and said, “He’s been with the oil companies for thirty-five years.” Two newly washed cars and two squat skidoos were parked at haphazard angles in the short driveway. Kaskamin seemed to loosen up without Marcel around. “Everybody’s got a different attitude, different way of thinking” about the oil companies, he told me. “For the people here it’s a benefit, and also a destruction.” He said that he doesn’t go to community meetings anymore, because people take his ambivalent perspective as a pro-oil one. He explained that he doesn’t consider himself pro-oil, just practical. Progress will never stop, and “everything is being polluted anyway.” He suspected the high local cancer rate might also be caused by Western medicine and processed food.

Going for a ride with Jimmy.
Going for a ride with Jimmy.

Kaskamin and I wended our way to a collection of cul-de-sacs occupied by colorful ranch houses — homes built by the First Nation and leased at low cost to its members — until we reached the shore of Lake Athabasca. He parked by a small dock jutting out into the lake. On either side of it, boats whose bright colors had long faded bobbed in the quiet breeze.

We strolled to the end of the jetty, where the gleaming waters of the vast lake stretched to the horizon. As the setting sun tinged the clouds a dark rose, Kaskamin pointed out the residential school that he — and Marcel, and most others in his generation from Fort Chip — had been made to attend by a federal government enforcing a policy of “aggressive assimilation” for indigenous children. Kaskamin gazed impassively at the former school, which was now just an unassuming, quaint church. The dormitory where he’d lived had been razed long ago. A silence settled as we both breathed the cool twilight air, and he turned and walked back to his car.

As we climbed back into the pickup, a black van pulled up next to us, a short, grinning, elderly man at the wheel. “Jimmy!” He shouted. “Oh,” Kaskamin exclaimed. “Marbles!” He was late for his weekly marbles game. “Give me a half an hour.” The man agreed and drove away, and Kaskamin left to buy cigarettes from a dusty vinyl-sided trailer that contained what he called a “little confectionary store.” He’s allowed two tax-free cartons of cigarettes a week by virtue of his Secure Status card.

“You know,” he said, on the way back, “the oil companies send girls like you into the community, into our meetings. We call them little spies. That’s what they’ll call you.” Then he taught me the word for “little white girl” in Cree, and when I confessed I had to leave the next morning — the daily flights fill up so fast, it had been the only one available — he said, “No, they’ll call you mosquito! In and out like that, they’ll call you a mosquito.”

By the time we returned to the campground, it had emptied out except for the various oil workers who were camping out for the night. A fire was blazing, sending white sparks into the air. Hunched shoulders, protected from the late-summer chill by bright polyester jackets, circled the campfire. Melody Lepine, the retreat organizer, pulled out a s’mores kit —“a kit, for s’mores?” someone asked, incredulous — and we passed the box around, along with a big bag of pre-made snack mix. Almost everyone was smoking a cigarette. “It’s a smoker culture up here,” a fellow retreat attendee confessed to me, “I was surprised by that.” Also aboriginal, he was an oil company employee from British Columbia. Where he was from, First Nations were making headlines for protesting the tar sands. B.C. and Alberta are linked by the industry’s rapid expansion, and its growing need for coastal access to ship its product to markets overseas.

Alberta’s current and previous premiers have both lobbied for the construction of a pipeline that would cross the Rockies and connect the tar sands to ports in B.C. The proposed Enbridge pipeline, known as Northern Gateway, would allow the oil to be shipped to markets in East Asia. The construction of Northern Gateway would ease pressure on the still-unapproved Keystone XL link to the United States’ refineries and ports in East Texas. While Northern Gateway was approved in June of last year, it had 209 conditions attached — and one was that local First Nations must be consulted. Enbridge and its allies, including most of Alberta’s provincial politicians, have been met with fierce resistance in B.C., particularly from First Nations, in the form of court challenges and public protests.

The desperation for new pipelines is a result of Alberta’s lack of refineries with the capacity to upgrade tar sands oil into a lighter liquid crude, as well as the fact that the mines are landlocked and thus dependent on pipelines for access to international shipping ports; with the pipelines stalled, a glut of oil has been trapped in the province. In December of 2014, Alberta’s premier Jim Prentice claimed that the province and federal government lost $6 billion in royalties and revenue from the immobilized oil that year alone. First Nations’ opposition to oil pipelines on or near their traditional territory has played a crucial role in helping to fuel popular resistance against them.

The shore of Lake Athabasca, in Fort Chipewyan.
The shore of Lake Athabasca, in Fort Chipewyan.

As the sky grew darker and night crept in, Lepine sat herself in the camping chair beside mine. As director of the Mikisew Cree’s Government and Industry Relations office, she leads the battle to convince oil corporations and the province of Alberta to listen to her First Nation’s concerns when it comes to granting oil corporations leases to mine near their traditional territory. This is no small task: She told me that her department of nine people is asked to process hundreds of applications every year, and a single application could require going through hundreds of boxes of documents. Lepine characterized the process as “like triage.”

It’s not only the amount of work asked of a small First Nation office that makes the consultation process in Alberta so byzantine. Consultation today is the current version of a relationship between white settlers and aboriginal inhabitants that has morphed continuously over the past 400 years, and the history of consultation is nearly as convoluted as the process itself. When I met with her in Edmonton, Deranger, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s communications coordinator, had argued that consultation should have been in place since the late June day in 1899 when her ancestors signed a treaty that granted a territory larger than France to the British Queen in exchange for reserves, yearly payments, hunting supplies and medicine, among other things. The treaty was signed after aboriginals were adamantly assured that their lifestyles would never be altered, and that they would be consulted before changes were made to the land they were signing over to the Crown. But it wasn’t until the late twentieth century that the promised consultation began to take place. After the Canadian constitution was amended in 1982 to include protection for aboriginal and treaty rights, and several subsequent court cases were decided in favor of aboriginal land claims, the political machinery began to slowly act.

Deranger said that in the 1990s, as the question of consultation was being raised more often in the courts, “Canada had a fiduciary obligation [to consult], but they didn’t have the manpower, the resources, to hire people to go to all the provinces, to consult with all the nations. So they said, ‘Hey provinces, you’re part of this country, you need to develop models that make sure that you fulfill the federal obligation. So here’s some frameworks on how to do consultation.’ They were piss-poor.”

In Alberta, in particular, the “government doesn’t want to spend the resources or the time or the money to do the type of consultation that’s necessary for all of the different resource projects, particularly in Alberta’s tar sands…what’s basically happened is that consultation has been handed to the corporations.”

Jessica Johnson, Director of Communications for the Government of Alberta’s Aboriginal Relations office, responded, “The Alberta government, in accordance with case law, is permitted to (and does) delegate procedural aspects of consultation to corporations, however it does not delegate the duty of consultation, which remains with the Crown.” Johnson further stressed that to improve Alberta’s First Nations consultation process, Aboriginal Relations is committed to reviewing the policy annually to encourage participation of First Nations, industry and other stakeholders.

Deranger went on to describe those early years of slap-dash, corporate-led consultation practices in the late 1990s. She explained, “It’s so psychotic to think that this was happening in the ’90s and the early 2000s still — but these corporations were going into communities, corporations, the government, and they would put up a little poster and say, ‘Exxon presentation at the community hall on Friday! Come, and you’ll get a cell phone!’ Or, ‘Come to our presentation, we’ll pay you $200!’ Whatever. Trinkets and baubles.

“And they’d come, people would show up — and it didn’t matter who showed up, by the way — and they’d go through their slideshow, and they’d say, ‘This is our project! This is going to bring you jobs, and all sorts of wonderful things!’ And the corporation would go, ‘Oh yes, we consulted with this nation. Check!’ And the government would go, ‘Oh, our corporation consulted. Check!’ And they’d pass it over to the federal government. Consultation done.” Deranger has a habit of sustaining eye contact, and it feels especially intense when she grows flushed with anger, as she did when she carefully enunciated: “No word of a lie.”

The aerial route to Fort Chipewyan.
The aerial route to Fort Chipewyan.

I later spoke on the phone with a Canadian expert in aboriginal legal rights, Monique Passelac-Ross, and she echoed Deranger’s frustration. “The consultation process is pretty broken in Alberta,” she said. She explained that legally the process should reflect the First Nations’ own desires and vision for how they would like to be consulted — essentially, the law requires that the aboriginal people play an equal part in designing the consultation process — but in practice, while First Nations are given the chance to provide input, Alberta has the final word on the design and implementation of its consultation policy. In other words, it’s not an equal partnership. Aboriginal people are asked to attend public hearings, should they wish their views to be heard by provincial officials, and the particular rights that they hold — their aboriginal and treaty rights — are rarely considered in such hearings. However, Passelac-Ross noted, “This consultation is an issue of rights, the rights that they hold under the treaties.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator, the government body that regulates development and mining on provincial land, boasts a board of directors, the majority of whom come from careers in resource extraction industries. When the regulator was created — the province passed a law consolidating several separate panels in late 2012 to streamline the lease application and environmental assessment processes for the oil industry — a section in the legislation mandating its creation stated that the board wouldn’t have jurisdiction to decide if consultation with aboriginal people is adequate.

Aboriginal rights, Passelac-Ross said, are “a very new concern in Canada.” She went on, “The governments have not really put two and two together and said, ‘We should make sure we accommodate the rights of aboriginal people.’”

While the government has been slow to recognize them, aboriginal rights are transforming Canada’s political landscape. With the indigenous opposition to the Gateway pipeline to the west and the activism against Keystone in the United States — much of it coming from American Indian tribes located in the states it will traverse — the rights of indigenous peoples are something few in power can continue to ignore.

The federal government, led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has noticed the trend. In 2014, The Guardian obtained reports written by the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs that laid bare the Harper regime’s sentiments toward the rising tide of aboriginal activism: “‘There is a tension between the rights-based agenda of Aboriginal groups and the non-rights based policy approaches’ of the federal government,” the newspaper quoted. This statement confirmed many aboriginal suspicions about their dealings with the Canadian government: Politicians’ priorities seem to lie less with the rights of individual citizens than with securing the continued expansion of the private sector, particularly the energy sector. And the sector has certainly expanded. In a report published last November, the Canadian Energy Research Institute predicted that oil sands development would double in size by 2030, if all pending applications for leases were approved.

I asked Deranger, when we met, what the mood was like in Fort Chipewyan, and she told me, “People are sad. I don’t know how else to say it.” Deranger claimed that because hunting and fishing were so threatened by industry, people were becoming less active, staying at home and eating food loaded with preservatives. She left me with a story about the emotional aftermath of the cancer scare: “We were at this meeting once and we were talking about all these issues, and this Metís man, crying, said, ‘I come from a fishing and trapping family. That’s what I know, that’s what I do. That’s what my dad did, that’s what I do.’ He had a son who was eight at the time, and he said, ‘My little boy won’t eat meat that I hunt or fish that I catch. And when I put it on the table, he asks me where I got it from. And I said to him once, ‘Why do you want to know?’ And he said, ‘Because I don’t want to get cancer and die.’” Deranger clenched her fists and gave me a piercing look as she said, “When an eight-year-old has those fears in a community, you know that it runs deep.”

Back at the campfire, I asked Lepine how it felt to see all these projects approved, regardless of her community’s opposition to them. She said, “It makes it somewhat daunting but I enjoy the challenge — continuously trying to make a difference, whether or not it’s a small difference; getting the government to pursue, for example, the designing of a new water monitoring system, raising concerns…we’re a voice. I think they hear it, [the issue] is just how responsive they are.” She gazed into the fire. “It’s been very slow.”

Lepine didn’t particularly blame the oil companies; her beef was with Alberta. The province designed the lease application procedures; the companies merely followed the government’s rules. She said that lawyers she’s worked with have told her that of all the provinces where they’ve worked — B.C., Saskatchewan, the Yukon — they’d found that Alberta was the most hostile to aboriginal concerns. She continued, “It’s like talking to a wall — but even a wall isn’t that bad.”

Flames burn at a campfire in Fort Chipewyan.
Flames burn at a campfire in Fort Chipewyan.

The campfire was diminished, and the circle slowly dispersed. Before Lepine turned in for the night, I asked her how she hoped to see the oil sands industry change. She said, “I think it should slow down. It’s going too fast — science isn’t keeping up. Traditional knowledge is saying that the impacts are great. There are changes in the water, wildlife, people, and those impacts are not understood…We shouldn’t just keep going and think we’ll solve the problems in the future.” She continued to stare into the subdued fire as she went on, “The risk is too great when you have people, culture, lives depending on it.” Soon after, she stood up, turned to the inky blackness of the forest behind her, and walked to her tent.

A little more than eighteen months after that night in late August, the price of oil has sunk to a six-year low. Business journalists across North America speculate as to how detrimental this will be for the expensive, unpopular industry. But while many jobs have been cut and the construction of many new mines has been delayed, the tar sands have weathered crashes before — and the price of oil has always rebounded.

Some in Fort Chipewyan think that this price slump might provide the temporary slowdown in development — the chance for more study, evaluation and discussion of the industry’s environmental and health effects — for which they have long been asking.