Tarsands is turning into Alberta’s atrocity

Former Fort Chip chief is gaining world attention

by Jack Locke

If the laws of the land were justly applied, the tarsands would not be poisoning Albertans. And if those laws were applied, then the tarsands operators would be shaking in their boots.

But when the government not only looks the other way, but encourages these acts of pollution at Herculean proportions, then those same government officials must be held accountable.

“Previous Alberta governments did not do enough to protect the health of people living near tarsands development or downstream of the many projects,” says David Swann, leader of the Alberta Liberals. “They were callous and irresponsible.”

The same can be said for current provincial and federal governments, except I am not so nearly polite as Swann.

You can shit on some of the people some of the time, but you can’t shit on First Nations all of the time.

Imagine an open pit mine in your backyard. Next, imagine a tailings pond in your front yard. Now, imagine an oil refinery in your living room. You figure out why your family and friends are dying of cancer, but when the government turns a blind eye, you hit the road.

This is the situation for Alberta’s Mikisew Cree First Nation at Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta.

With the continued assault on the land, water and air by Alberta’s tarsands developers, the Alberta advantage is quickly becoming globally known as the Alberta atrocity. And George Poitras is at the centre of the battle to stop the despoliation of First Nations’ ancestral lands and territory.

Recently, the former chief of Mikisew Cree made waves when he met with Avatar director James Cameron in New York City. With every news story about the tarsands, Alberta’s black eye is getting blacker.

Poitras has been touring Europe and other places in a desperate call for help. In 2009, Poitras wrote an article in London’s The Guardian detailing his grievances against Big Oil and the Big Bad Alberta Advantage.

“We believe the extraction of oil from Canada’s tarsands is having a devastating impact on our indigenous people. This year, a study confirms that there are elevated levels of rare and other cancers among indigenous residents who live directly downstream from the tarsands activity, and that the contamination of our waters, snow, vegetation, wildlife and fish has grown exponentially in the past five years.”

The study that Poitras refers to was followed by concerns from community physician Dr. John O’Connor, who first noticed a high rate of deadly cancers (cholangiocarcinoma) hitting his Fort Chipewyan patients.

Fort Chip is roughly a two-day paddle downstream along the Athabasca River from major oilsands extraction facilities. Of course, Alberta Health Services then reported: “A study of the cancer incidence in Fort Chipewyan finds levels of the rare cancer cholangiocarcinoma are not higher than expected. Of the six suspected cases reported by Dr. O’Connor, two are confirmed cases of cholangiocarcinoma. Upon review, three of the reported cases were found to be other cancers; another was not a cancer.”

What cancer rate did the province expect when examining the population that lives directly downstream from what the group Environmental Defence calls the “Most Destructive Project on Earth”?

One 2007 study of the water, fish and river sediment in Fort Chip found elevated levels of arsenic, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a substance associated with oil production and cancer production.

It would not be so bad if the environmental devastation was an accident, but it is not. It is criminal. They steal Canada’s natural resources for only one reason: greed. They pollute for only one reason: greed. And government is complicit in the atrocity.

But rather than declaring armed defence against the perpetrators of petro-poisoning, Poitras and supporters are using public relations as their weapon.

Scheduled to speak recently in Montreal, Poitras was waylaid in Europe by a particular Icelandic volcano. In his place, environmental activist Mike Mercredi spoke to a large gathering of concerned Quebecers via video-conferencing from Fort Chip, 4,000 km northwest of Montreal. You can’t keep a good cause down.

“I drove a heavy hauler for several years at the tarsands. I would hear from back home that one person was sick, another was dying, and another was dead. People were dying at an alarming rate,” Mercredi said.

On its website, Alberta’s Natural Resources Conservation Board states: “Currently, industry extracts around 174,800 cubic metres (1.1 million barrels) of bitumen each day, which represents about one-third of the province’s total crude oil production, a rate expected to rise to 429,000 cubic metres (2.7 million barrels) by 2015.”

Conservation? Clearly the board should be given a name more suiting of their purpose, such as: the Alberta Bull Promulgation Board.

But you cannot fool all the people all the time. Jean Binette lives in Dunham, Que. Enbridge has plans (currently on hold) to lay its high-pressure Trailbreaker pipeline through his quaint rural town to carry Alberta tarsands crude from Montreal to Portland, Maine.

He has a message for Alberta’s premier: “Don’t be so greedy.”

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