The Oilsands: First Nations struggle to save traditions while profiting from boom
By Marty Klinkenberg, Edmonton Journal, December 15, 2013
FORT CHIPEWYAN — On a hill overlooking Lake Athabasca, the big water that sustained their forefathers for 9,000 years, a dozen residents of Fort Chipewyan gather in a teepee with the legs and shoulders of a freshly killed caribou before them.
Outside, gulls dive and swoop and cry in a breeze that rustles the flaps and bends the poles. Inside, Mary and Lily Marcel clutch razor-sharp knives and begin leading a class in the dying art of drying meat. There are elders and a baby, coddled and cuddled in the arms of one adult and the next, and several generations in-between.
All smiles, Cassandra Marcel watches — and then carefully slices the skin on the leg of a caribou, shot days earlier during the fall hunt, for the first time.
“I think I am going to have to change my nail polish,” says Cassandra, 23.
Established by fur traders in 1788, Fort Chipewyan is Alberta’s oldest settlement and one of its most remote. Sitting in the northeast corner of the province, it is reachable only by air or a lengthy boat ride up the Athabasca River or ice road in the winter. Nearly 300 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, it is home to roughly 1,200 people, predominantly Métis and members of the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations.
As an aboriginal community downstream from the oilsands, it shares a quandary with other First Nations communities blessed and cursed by their proximity to the world’s largest stash of bitumen: They are simultaneously prospering and in a life-and-death struggle to retain their cultural identity.
Prosperity, but at what cost?
Unemployment is virtually non-existent in Fort Chipewyan, incomes are rising, and a seniors’ care home with a sweat lodge is under construction. On the flip side, traditions practised for centuries are being lost as band members are lured away by the promise of the oilpatch.
“There has to be a balance between the oilsands and tradition,” Greg Marcel, a councillor with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, says, building a fire with branches of diamond willow to smoke and dry caribou meat. “If you make too much money, you lose your traditions. If you try to live strictly off the land, you can’t afford it.”
As recently as a few decades ago, nearly 80 per cent of the residents in Fort Chipewyan lived off the land. But activity in the oilsands is migrating north, swallowing up resources and, for First Nations, stifling a way of life. It is true in Fort Chipewyan, farther south in Fort McKay, and on other reserves around the province.
“There is nothing black and white about what is happening,” says John O’Connor, one of two doctors serving native communities in Alberta’s northeastern corridor. “There is no denying industry’s arrival has brought jobs, and that socioeconomic circumstances have improved immensely.
“But it is a dilemma for communities that are losing ground, literally, and losing touch with their culture. In the end it is almost a choice of ‘Do I die by starvation or do I die by poisoning?’
“If industry shuts down, they have nothing. If it continues, they are right in the middle of it. It is a really tough situation that indigenous people in Canada are in.”
In Fort Chipewyan, elders are staging free workshops in an attempt to sustain traditions, including offering instruction in moose hide tanning, fish drying, beadwork, and drying meat.
“My job is to put programs together that will help bring back our culture,” says Roxanne Marcel, a former Mikisew Cree chief who now works for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “It is a challenge, and will always be a challenge.
“There is still interest, but there is a gap.”
‘We were anti-development for a long time’
Raised by his grandparents, Jim Boucher grew up in Fort McKay, playing hockey on the Athabasca River with a stick fashioned from the curved branch of a birch tree and skates forged out of shoes with files attached to the bottom.
“It was a good life, but we had nothing, really,” Boucher says as he sits on a couch in his corner office overlooking the river on the Fort McKay First Nation, where he has served as chief for 23 of the last 27 years. “You had to use your imagination and improvise if you wanted to play.
“We slid up and down hills, ran dog teams, went hunting, set up snares. We would swim all day, then swim out to a net in the river, take out a fish and go back to shore and cook it for dinner.
“That way we didn’t have to go home and get heck for being gone all day and forgetting about our chores.”
With the exception of attending high school in Edmonton, Boucher, 57, has spent his entire life in Fort McKay. The hamlet 58 km north of Fort McMurray is a perfect example of a community that is both flourishing and under siege.
Impoverished and without running water or electricity in Boucher’s youth, Fort McKay is booming. The band is building dozens of homes to be rented to members at below-market prices, and construction has started on a kindergarten-to-Grade 12 school, a youth centre, a long-term care facility for elders, a church, and an amphitheatre with seating for 1,800.
In a community of 800 Dene, Cree and Métis, only a handful are unemployed. As long as they are able, residents are put to work for the Fort McKay Group of Companies, eight limited partnerships that are controlled by the band and provide services to the oil and gas industry.
The group of companies founded in 1986 is directed by Boucher and ranks among Canada’s most successful aboriginal business ventures, with annual revenue exceeding $100 million.
“I think our community is benefiting from oilsands development, but we do so because there are no other economic opportunities,” Boucher says.
Established in 1820 by the Hudson Bay Company, Fort McKay was devastated when an anti-fur campaign resulted in a ban on animals caught in leghold traps in the mid-1980s. At the time, local trappers were earning as much as $1,000 for a lynx pelt and $80 for a beaver.
“It was a very lucrative economy for our people,” Boucher says. “We were devastated economically.”
Forced to explore other options, the community focused on the energy industry gaining a foothold in the region. A handful of companies had established mining operations in the countryside surrounding Fort McKay, despite objections from the First Nation.
“We were anti-development for a long time, but at the end of the day it came down to the point where government would approve the projects and our rights were diminished by virtue of what they were doing,” Boucher says. “Gradually, we came to recognize we had no other option but to develop an economy of our own.
“I was forced to be in this position because of history, and the need for oil within certain markets of the world.”
The First Nation now derives 98 per cent of its revenue from the oilsands, but it does not come without a cost.
“When I was young, we were not really subject to government, other than in the sense that they came and took children away and put them in residential schools,” Boucher says. “I was lucky enough to be taken in by my grandparents at a very young age, and we used to travel up and down the river with a canoe. We would walk in the fall. In winter, we would use toboggans with dogs.
“It was a beautiful time in my life.”
As a teen, Boucher learned how to trap from his grandfather, setting up a line at Mildred Lake, south of Fort McKay. It is there that Syncrude erected a bitumen plant with a capacity of nearly 300,000 barrels per day.
“I put some snares out one day and went back the next day to check them,” Boucher recalls. “Suddenly, I came to a huge clearing and all of my snares were gone.
“That was how we were introduced to the oil companies. They came in here and tore down the forest without any discussion.”
Begrudging involvement in the Oilsands Industry
For Alberta, and arguably all of Canada, the road to a robust economy is paved with bitumen. In terms of oil reserves, there are 177 billion barrels of oil recoverable from Alberta’s oilsands. More conventional crude accounts for only 4.1 billion barrels of the Canadian reserves.
Discovered by aboriginals who used the substance to seal seams on their canoes, bitumen oozes naturally through rocky cliffs along the steep river banks in northern Alberta and pools along the shorelines.
The sheer volume of the resource makes it a dominant player in the drive to replenish North America’s dwindling supply of traditional crude.
Transported by pipelines at the pace of a brisk walk, the thick bitumen slurry is refined and then turned into an array of products as diverse as gasoline, ballpoint pens, lipstick and hockey pucks.
The result is a windfall, with new oilsands developments expected to contribute $2.1 trillion to the Canadian economy in the next 25 years. In Alberta, over the same period, $350 billion is expected to be accrued in royalties alone.
For decades, major players like Suncor, Syncrude, Shell and Canadian Natural Resources have invested heavily in the oilsands, but it is more recently that First Nations have become begrudgingly involved.
The Northeastern Alberta Aboriginal Business Association now has 101 majority-owned companies among its members, ranging from native awareness training groups to multimillion-dollar construction firms. In the Wood Buffalo region, which includes Fort McMurray and a majority of the oilsands, aboriginal companies performed more than $1 billion in contract work for industry in 2011.
“In Fort McKay, we are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place,” says Dayle Hyde, the First Nation’s communications director. “If we had refused to participate in the oilsands, we would have become an island in the midst of development. We would not be much farther ahead than we were in the 1980s.”
Lawsuits and rock stars as First Nations fight back
A battle is being waged over the oilsands on many fronts.
In the last two years, Alberta Premier Alison Redford has visited Washington and New York to lobby on behalf of industry, and this fall Redford dispatched then-environment minister (now Energy minister) Diana McQueen on a similar tour of European capitals.
But as hard as government has been pushing, First Nations have been pushing back. And they are taking to the international stage.
In October, George Poitras, a former chief of the Mikisew Cree, travelled to the Netherlands and U.K. to raise awareness of the environmental effects of oilsands on aboriginal communities. Shortly before that, Neil Young lashed out against the oilsands during a news conference in Washington that made splashy headlines.
The veteran Canadian singer got involved through Eriel Deranger, the Chipewyan band’s fiery spokeswoman.
On Dec. 9, 2013, Young announced he is doing a series of concerts to help bankroll the First Nation’s legal challenges against expansion in the oilsands.
The native band’s oilsands campaign co-ordinator, Deranger comes by activism honestly — her family was forcibly removed from its trapline in Saskatchewan by a mining company.
Although she fields queries from people with environmental concerns from all over the world, Deranger was skeptical when contacted by someone claiming to be an acquaintance of Young’s.
After a flurry of emails, however, she confirmed the connection, and planned a visit to the oilsands for the rock-and-roll legend.
In September, Young and actress Daryl Hannah, who was arrested outside the White House in February while protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline, drove 2,800 km from San Francisco to Fort McMurray in a 1959 Lincoln the musician has retrofitted to run on electricity generated by an ethanol engine.
Upon their arrival, Deranger hopped in the back, strapped one of her children into a car seat, and narrated a tour, with Young at the wheel and Hannah riding shotgun.
During a stop in Janvier at the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, the singer brandished a guitar and sang Heart of Gold with local native drummers accompanying him.
“He is a really genuine, down-to-earth, guy,” Deranger says, promising Young’s participation as an oilsands agitator is not over.
A former treaty land entitlement claims researcher for the Saskatchewan First Nations, Deranger was hired as a communications consultant by the Athabasca Chipewyan in 2011. In that capacity, she travels regularly between her home in Edmonton and Fort Chipewyan, in and around where her father was born and raised.
As a child, her dad sent her to Fort Chipewyan to spend time with family, and she discovered the Dene heritage she so fiercely protects today.
Absent from northern Alberta for 10 years after her parents separated, Deranger returned in her early 20s and was troubled by what she found.
“I remembered driving from Fort McMurray to Fort McKay as a child, and it was basically Syncrude, Suncor and I think one other company in a little strip,” says Deranger, now in her mid-30s. “There were rivers and trees, and the boreal forest was still relatively abundant in the area.”
When she drove along the same stretch a decade later, tears streamed down her face.
“I looked out the window and everything I had known and seen as a child was gone,” she says. “It was at that moment that I realized I had to do something.”
Over the last two years, as the band has challenged oilsands projects proposed within its traditional territory, Deranger has become its eloquent mouthpiece.
“We talk about the economic boom, but we are not taking actual side costs into consideration,” she says. “On the First Nations a lot of people are benefiting, but it is also creating an incredible polarization between people in poverty and those employed in the oilsands.
“There are many people who choose not to work for the oil and gas industry for political and personal reasons, and they often pay the price.”
Connection between health and industry?
John O’Connor had never met a First Nations person before coming to Alberta in 1993.
A doctor in Ireland, he immigrated to Nova Scotia in 1984, and moved to Fort McMurray to practise medicine nine years after that.
The general practitioner became interested in native culture and jumped at the chance in late 1993 when asked to serve the community in Janvier, 120 km to the south.
Four years later, he received an invitation to see patients in Fort McKay, and three years after that he began flying to Fort Chipewyan to treat patients there.
“I think being Irish, the Irish are always on the side of the underdogs,” O’Connor says on a cool fall evening, stethoscope wrapped around his neck. “I think I would die of suffocation if I was to come back into an office in a city setting and see patients who are mostly suffering illnesses related to the choices they have made, as opposed to people from outlying areas that in many instances have nothing.
“You feel like you are actually doing something good.”
It was while working in Fort Chipewyan that O’Connor, the former medical examiner in the region, observed an unusual frequency in cancer. He ruffled feathers by going public with his concerns in 2006 and then fought with health authorities who refuted his claims and threatened to take his license away.
A 2009 study released by the Alberta Cancer Board found that Fort Chipewyan had a 30-per-cent higher cancer rate than expected, however, and the complaints lodged against O’Connor, including one for raising undue alarm, were dropped.
O’Connor is disappointed no subsequent review has been undertaken to determine the cause of the elevated cancer rates. A study promised by government was abandoned after residents in Fort Chipewyan objected when the province moved to include industry representatives on an oversight committee.
“We still don’t know if there is any connection between health issues in the communities and development in the oilsands,” says O’Connor, who works in the emergency room at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre in Fort McMurray on weekends, evaluating patients to see if they require hospitalization. “At this point, it isn’t my duty or even the duty of public health to say there is a connection. Government and industry should have to prove there isn’t. That is the way it works everywhere else in the world.
“Given the toxins and the illnesses identified, I suspect you can join the dots. You don’t want to join the dots, but that’s the way to go about it. You study, do the appropriate testing and be rigorous and scientific about it.
“The tragedy of all this is that not one public health physician is asking anything, based on the precautionary principle even. The silence is deafening.”
Conflicted past, confusing present
An elder on the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Alice Rigney was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011. Like everyone else in Fort Chipewyan, she can easily string together a list of family members and friends who have also been stricken.
“It seems like every year someone here is diagnosed with cancer,” she says, sitting beside a fire in front of her house on a fall evening where northern lights streak brilliantly across the sky. “I think the community feels industry has something to do with the sickness, but you can’t say for sure without an intensive health study.
“It needs to be done.”
Born in Fort Chipewyan, Rigney has engaged in a lifelong struggle to retain her culture.
At the age of five, she was taken from her parents and placed in a residential school where she was prohibited from speaking in Dene, her native tongue.
“Most of us left the system not knowing our language or culture, and not proud of who we were,” says Rigney, 62. “We were called savages by the nuns and sexually abused by the priests.
“For a while, I hated their God. What kind of a God would abuse little children?”
Taught to be embarrassed by her heritage, Rigney grew apart from her parents. Only later, as an adult, did she reconnect with them, after learning Dene at the suggestion of her grandmother. Her father, born in a teepee, spoke no English.
“When I learned to speak the language, my identity was given back to me,” says Rigney, one of only a few people in Fort Chipewyan able to speak Dene fluently.
Nearly wiped out by famine and epidemic, Fort Chipewyan has seen more than its share of grief.
Its haunting little cemetery is dotted with row upon row of graves of children who succumbed to influenza and smallpox. Subsistence trapping has been poor since water levels in Lake Athabasca fell dramatically as the result of a B.C. Hydro dam project in 1967, and pickerel and whitefish with deformities have been caught since 1982, when a fuel spill shut down commercial fishing in the lake for two years.
“There is no trapping and nobody wants to eat polluted fish, so what else, other than going to work for industry, are people going to do?” Rigney says. “It’s a hard situation, a catch-22.”
A mother of four with 10 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, Rigney laments the fact that family members are leaving Fort Chipewyan for the oilpatch. Unlike other First Nations communities, until very recently, only a handful of people opted to work for oil and gas companies. The number has grown from seven a half-dozen years ago to around 70 today.
“There was a comment said to a friend of mine that he was helping to destroy the land by working at industry,” Rigney says. “It made him feel bad. When you have young ones, and the only thing you can do is drive big trucks, you do it.
“He doesn’t have a choice.”
Alice’s husband of 17 years, John Rigney moved to Fort Chipewyan in 1972 from a farm near Edmonton. He had no intention of staying, but says, “I have never had the willpower to leave.”
A non-native, with the exception of a few interruptions he has worked as a manager for the Mikisew Cree or Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations since 1982.
“When I came here, I felt I had been betrayed and lied to all of my life,” Rigney, 63, says. “I had never met native people, except for maybe a couple of individuals, and I had been told that Canada was a land of freedom and equality.
“Then I came here and I saw oppression and poverty beyond anything I ever imagined possible. I saw families who had their children taken away for 50 years, young people who didn’t know how to raise kids because they had no family model, and 90-per-cent unemployment, not because people were lazy, but because industry and governments had changed the environment.”
In 1994, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation started a support-services company with a contract at Syncrude and five employees. Now it operates six companies, has seven joint ventures and a workforce of 1,400 people in fields as diverse as industrial cleaning, manufacturing, steel fabrication, road building, environmental monitoring, camp management and catering.
Thanks to its growing wealth, the band is considering offering business incentives to entrepreneurs, implementing home ownership and renovation incentive programs, and augmenting health and educational services provided by government.
In many ways the community has never had it so good — or so bad.
“The oilsands developments have provided opportunities for people and First Nations governments are poised to become really prosperous and independent,” says John Rigney. “At the same time, there has been no migration into Fort Chip and a substantial migration out for jobs, and there is a great fear of harmful pollution in our water, air, wildlife, berries and gardens.
“Really, I wish Edmonton and Calgary had all of the oilsands. I’d be real happy if they dug up the Calgary-Edmonton highway for 50 kilometres on either side just as they are doing to the Athabasca River. I would advertise it as the most beautiful development Alberta ever had because that is how they advertise the oilsands as they are destroying northeast Alberta in the process.
“You can’t mine out 4,000 square kilometres and have no impact. You will never make me believe that it won’t cause hundreds of years of pollution for people downstream.”
McKay ‘An advocate for responsible development’
After 20 years of coexisting with industry without much discord, the Fort McKay First Nation filed an objection this spring over a project in northeastern Alberta.
The band appeared before the province’s Energy Resources Conservation Board and asked for a 20-km buffer zone to protect its Moose Lake Reserve from a 250,000 barrel-per-day bitumen facility.
Ultimately, the board rejected Fort McKay’s argument that the development would infringe on activities band members have enjoyed at Moose Lake for more than 100 years.
The outcome disappointed the First Nation, which has since been granted leave to appeal. At its closest point, the steam-assisted gravity drainage plant would come within 1200 metres of the reserve where band members go canoeing, fishing and hunting, and teach courses to youth on native culture.
“We are engaging a number of people with respect to how we can save the lake from any impingement or destruction,” Boucher says. “Our people feel it is a very special place.
“I am thinking of building a cabin there, perhaps where my grandfather had his. I think it is the only place on this planet where I can reconnect with his spirit.”
Dayle Hyde, the First Nation’s communications director, understands the band’s opposition has raised eyebrows. The First Nation also recently pulled out of an industry-sponsored environmental monitoring program, calling it a “frustrating and futile” process.
“There is a perception out there that if you are a First Nation and you haven’t built your economy, then you are leaching off government,” says Hyde, the daughter of the late Dorothy McDonald, Alberta’s first woman to be elected chief. “With us, we have built our economy but there is still a perception that we shouldn’t have a say in the environmental impacts of the oilsands because we have participated.
“But I think Fort McKay has always been an advocate for responsible development.”
Like her mother, who served as chief from 1980-86 and 1990-92, Hyde sees good and bad in resource development. Dorothy McDonald recognized the benefits enough to establish the Fort McKay Group of Companies, but another time she planted a teepee in the middle of the road to prevent logging trucks from speeding through the community.
“Recognizing Fort McKay has benefited from development, we still need areas to be able to practice traditional activities because it is part of who we are,” Hyde, 33, says. “One of the hardest things about loving Fort McKay and seeing where it is today is seeing how much the landscape has changed.
“Fort McKay always had a natural beauty, even though it was close to oilsands development, but now it is harder to pretend we aren’t surrounded.
“You can see it and hear it and smell it every day.”
LIFE IN FORT CHIP
There are approximately 23,000 aboriginals living near Alberta’s oilsands, with 18 First Nations and six Métis settlements in the region.
Fort Chipewyan, headquarters to both the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree bands, is among its most endearing places.
There is a community school and a hockey rink, two bed and breakfasts, a picturesque wharf, an airport with a double-wide trailer that serves as a terminal, two gas bars, a couple of churches and restaurants, and a museum where it is possible to acquire a native cookbook with recipes for smoked muskrat, beaver and sauerkraut and jellied moose nose.
Groceries are brought in by ice road, barge and air, and they are extraordinarily expensive at the one and only Northern Store: $15.99 for a 600-gram block of cheese, $12.39 for a four-litre jug of milk, $10.35 for a one-litre carton of orange juice, $6.89 for a two-litre bottle of Coke, $5.99 for a head of cauliflower — and $189.99 for a coyote pelt.
A sign along the two-lane road that leads from the airstrip into town advertises that it is 4,098 km to Ottawa and 1,891 km to Vancouver — but they might as well be a million miles away.
“I love this place,” Alice Rigney says after fussing in her kitchen all day, pickling habanero peppers and beets from her garden and filling jars with homemade raspberry jam. “My husband and I had a chance to move to Fort McMurray but I think it took us about five seconds to realize it was not for us.
“Fort Mac has absolutely nothing that I want.”
Big Ray Ladouceur is a 71-year-old with grey hair and creases around his eyes. His grandmother was a medicine woman and his father was a fisherman, musher and trapper.
Married for 47 years, he jokes about his wife, Nancy, saying, “I set a trap and caught a Saskatchewan girl.”
A fisherman since he was old enough to haul a net, he laughs about the day he left his favourite spot, only to have one of his friends, Horton Flett, stay and haul in a 102-pound lake trout that destroyed $1,100 worth of gear.
“I miss the beauty of everything we had,” Ladouceur says. “It used to be that we could drink the water right off the rivers. Today, I make tea from water in the Athabasca River and it leaves a black scum around the cup.”
KEEPING IN TOUCH WITH THEIR ROOTS
A pile of frozen caribou legs, thighs and shoulders lies in the grass defrosting beside the teepee where natives from Fort Chipewyan are gathered for the drying-meat workshop.
Inside, the participants watch intently as elders skin the animals and begin cutting thin slices of meat that will be hung over sticks in an adjacent teepee where smoke is rising from a fire.
“I am a little afraid to try,” one woman says.
“It’s OK, I brought Band-Aids,” another chirps cheerfully.
Hands bloody, Cassandra Marcel and her younger cousin, Raylene Gibot, work slowly and steadily as they skin and cut the caribou they are learning how to dry. Raylene’s one-year-old son, Rayelle, sleeps peacefully in a stroller beside her.
“There, I did it!” Cassandra suddenly shouts jubilantly. “There is hope for me yet.”
Then she holds up a slice of caribou full of tiny holes like Swiss cheese.
“Does anyone have a needle and thread?” she asks. “I think I have to sew my meat back together.”
Around the teepee, the banter continues as participants learn a tradition passed down for hundreds of years. After it is cut, the caribou meat is smoked for six hours, dried for eight hours and then pounded to tenderize it.
“Dry meat and fish are a delicacy to us,” Greg Marcel says. “Even people who move from here to Fort McMurray and Edmonton phone home and ask if we have any. All of it will be gone in two or three days.”
Born in Fort Chipewyan, Marcel was taught to trap by his grandfather. For 20 years he worked in the oilpatch, now he is retired and helps to teach others their native culture.
“Over the last few years we have not been living off the land like we used to, and our traditions are being lost,” he says. “We are doing this to make sure we keep it alive.”
He doesn’t live like his ancestors, but he appreciates from whence he came.
“Environmentalists look at our land and say it is beautiful, nice country,” he says. “But we look at it a different way. We like to fish, we like to hunt, we like picking the berries.
“This is what has sustained us for thousands of years.”
This is part 5 of a series of in-depth articles about the Alberta oil sands published in the Edmonton Journal. The previous articles are:
- Primer: First Nations businesses
- The Oilsands: An introduction to this Edmonton Journal project
- Part 1: History
- Part 2: Industry
- Part 3: Lifestyle
- Part 4: Environment
Posted on December 16, 2013, in Oil & Gas and tagged Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Canadian Natural Resources, Dr John O'Connor, Eriel Deranger, Fort Chipewyan, Fort McKay First Nation, Fort McKay Group of Companies, Oilsands, Shell, Suncor, Syncrude, Tar Sands. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.