Tar Sands Pollution Forces Native Community To Confront The Loss Of Its Oldest Tradition

The undisturbed view when flying out of Fort Chipewyan. CREDIT: EMILY ATKIN
The undisturbed view when flying out of Fort Chipewyan. CREDIT: EMILY ATKIN

ALBERTA, CANADA — It is early evening in the remote First Nations community of Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. The sun is still sitting high over the Athabasca River, wide as an ocean, frozen solid and covered with untouched snow. Masses of coniferous forest surround the river, teeming with life. It’s dinnertime at the Elder’s Lodge.

There are two heaping pots of chunky caribou stew on the table, full of carrots and spices. Next to it, there’s a plate of white fish fillets, grilled golden brown and topped with fresh herbs.

Even for tribe with a such a rich history of hunting, fishing, and living off the land, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) elders seem to have outdone themselves.

Over time your body will break down, that’s what they told us.

Soon, however, we’re told that the caribou and fish were not killed by members of the ACFN. In fact, nothing on the table is grown, hunted, or caught by the community. Not anymore.


“Over time your body will break down, that’s what they told us,” said Jonathan Bruno, an ACFN member who does water quality monitoring for the community. “All your organs, all that buildup over the years, It’ll just keep growing and growing.”

Polluted By Tar Sands

Residents of the ACFN and the Mikisew Cree First Nation, both of which live in Fort Chipewyan, have known for some time that the wildlife surrounding their homes has been contaminated. But after years of dealing with contamination of both their food and their traditional way of life, no conclusive finding has been made about the cause.

But now, the ACFN and Mikisew Cree First Nations are starting to get some results.

On Monday, the two tribes released the results of a study they commissioned from the University of Manitoba, examining whether there is a link between the aggressive development of tar sands crude oil 150 miles upstream, and the food that they can no longer eat. The study, which was peer-reviewed by both the Canadian government and other health and environmental agencies, was the result of three years of community-based participatory research.


The results revealed higher-than-average concentrations of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), arsenic, mercury, cadmium, and selenium in kidney and liver samples from moose, ducks, muskrats, and beavers in the area. Tar sands extraction is a major emitter of all of these contaminants, the study said.

“This report confirms what we have always suspected about the association between environmental contaminants from [tar sands] production upstream and cancer and other serious illness in our community,” Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Steve Courtoreille said. “We are greatly alarmed and demand further research and studies are done to expand on the findings of this report.”

A Contentious Debate

The Canadian government has long disputed that Fort Chip’s wildlife contamination is the result of development from the Athabasca tar sands, one of three large deposits that helps make Alberta home to the second largest oil reserve in the world after Saudi Arabia. Fort Chip is approximately 150 miles downstream of Canada’s mecca of tar sands mining and refining, Fort McMurray, and both directly border the sweeping Athabasca River.

The debate between the community and the government has been contentious — especially as the community says cancer and sickness rates have skyrocketed in the last 30 years. But the Canadian government has refused to do a comprehensive health study to figure out the cause, instead using what many consider flawed statistical analysis to insist that the community’s cancer numbers are no greater than the rest of the Canadian population.

But our elders and our land users … say it’s never been like this their whole lives.

“Every time we complain about pollution and sickness to the government, they always come back and says its natural,” Bruno said. “But our elders and our land users — people who have lived off this land their whole life — they say it’s never been like this their whole lives. And we trust that.”


The back-and-forth has created a strong distrust of government within Fort Chip, so Bruno says he relies on his own water monitoring to determine whether fish and game are safe to eat. Generally, he said, it isn’t.

“We don’t feel safe unless all our food is tested,” he said. “Fish, plants, big game — everything that we consume as First Nations, we’re going to sample.”

Loss Of Food, Loss Of Culture

Not being able to hunt, fish, and trap at their leisure has done more than just force members of the ACFN and Mikisew Cree First Nations to shop at the grocery store more often. It has disconnected people with their heritage, according to ACFN member Mike Mercredi.

“You could almost say that our ways are becoming extinct,” Mercredi said, noting his tribes’ inherent connection with nature.

For Bruno, the loss of culture troubles him to the core. He remembers teaching his young son how to trap, hunt, and live off the land and then, the moment he was told there were limits, that he couldn’t eat fish without risking his health.

“It was heartbreaking,” he said. “For my son … He ate that year-round in our household, and for him to… for these professors and these universities to tell him there’s a limit on it…” he trailed off.

“I still eat it,” he continued. “I won’t put a limit on it, because that’s the way I was brought up. I’m 30 years old, and I ate that my whole life. So for somebody to tell me to quit eating it … I can’t just quit. If I get sick, I get sick. But that’s the choice I make.”

You could almost say that our ways are becoming extinct.

Eriel Deranger, the official spokeperson for the ACFN, said the same.

“I’m still eating the fish, because I don’t want the tar sands to change who I am,” she told the Vancouver Observer back in June. “But I still get these moments of panic after, because I don’t know what toxins are in the fish and going into my body — nobody knows.”

There are other residual effects, too. Because Fort Chip’s people can’t hunt or trap anymore, that means they can’t make a living off it, either. Instead, much of Fort Chip’s ACFN population now makes its money via 17 tribe-owned businesses that, ironically, service the booming tar sands industry. The ACFN’s businesses are all environmentally-focused: waste management, recycling, clean-up.

And Fort Chip’s residents need to make a good deal of money if they want to eat food from the grocery store. There is only one in Fort Chip, and everything is ridiculously expensive. This is because for most of the year, the town is only accessible by plane, save for a few months when a solid ice road can be used. Fuel costs drive the prices up — a box of Cheerios is $11.69. A gallon of apple juice is $12.79. A bag of potatoes is $16.59.

Call For Action

Even with the study’s results essentially confirming that Fort Chip’s pollution is linked to tar sands extraction, it’s unlikely that environmental remediation will soon solve any of the community’s problems with regard to their natural food sources.

But the hope among Fort Chip’s residents is that the study will spur action from the provincial and federal governments, mainly for a comprehensive health analysis of cancer causes in the region. Without a study, residents fear they will be inadequately equipped to handle their coming health problems.

“Communities are facing a double-bind,” Stephane McLachlan, head researcher for the study, said in a statement. “On one hand [the tar sands] cause a substantial decline in the health of the environment and ultimately of community members. On the other hand, the existing healthcare services are unable to address these declines in human health. These Indigenous communities are caught in the middle, and the impacts are clear and worrisome.”