The primarily indigenous and mostly Cree (also ‘Chipewyan Dene’) community of Fort MacKay — just north of the internationally famous tar sand “boom” city of Fort McMurray — is said to be the “richest First Nation in Canada.” The question should be asked: How well does this reach the entire community, and does the economic benefit outweigh the cost?
Let me describe the approach to Fort MacKay from “Fort Muck.” The only official community north of McMurray on the highway is MacKay, a community of about 500 people 40-odd kilometers down the mighty Athabasca River. On a highway like this one, a person would normally see car traffic every few minutes. On this particular road, the traffic is every few seconds. At shift change — with several of these every day of the year, around the clock– the highway is bumper to bumper the entire route. Where two generations ago there was nothing but muskeg forest, there is now sandy wastelands. Where there were rivers, there are now 9 storey-deep holes, often filled with useless mounds of treated earth. Where there were lakes with fish, there are tailings ponds with cancer-causing waste. In short, where there was life there is now death.
Fort MacKay is literally surrounded by (and on top of) the tar sands occurring naturally here.
“Every which direction you look, they’re [tar sands extraction plants] all around us, they’re all around us. And these two up above us here, those are the worst ones. These two are the worst polluters […]. That’s Syncrude and Suncor, they’re the worst ones because they’re so close to us too, you know?” explained Celina Harpe*, elder who has spent her entire life in MacKay. When the mining operations began in the 1960’s, so did many stark changes in the health patterns of the community.
“People only died of old age in our days,… very seldom — maybe odd now and then, but other than that, few deaths, very few […] But now? [deaths] right and left, young people 37, 34, 43… in their forties, early fifties. People are dying here. […] It’s got something to do with these plants, I’m sure of it myself because I’ve been here my whole life — in our day that’s not the way it was.”
After the plants began to operate, the water began to make people concerned for their health. And after the plants started operating, people who owned trap lines along the same territory found that they were either losing their lines altogether, or else they were seeing the disappearance of many of the animals they depended upon for their living, not to mention their diets.
Blueberries and Saskatoon berries were both once so abundant that annually everyone would have more than enough to flavour their favorite recipes. Now they are not scarce — not scarce because they are simply gone.
Erroneously, the typical Canadian representation of First Nations community’s attitude is shaped by the “official” line of the Indian Act government. Today, there is much suspicion towards the collusion of the Fort MacKay administration with Syncrude, Suncor, and other corporations that are quite reasonably indicated as prime components in the drastic change of living conditions since they began operations. The official Indian Act government of MacKay wants to begin a joint venture with Shell in the Tarpits themselves. This would necessitate that Fort MacKay will face Fort Chipewyan, downstream from MacKay, in the approvals process. Chip will oppose MacKay, but the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board has not refused a single application for tar sand mining in the entire region at any point in the “boom”.
Today the problems of Fort McMurray are all in evidence in Fort MacKay. There are sadly many victims of random violence in the small community, often tied to drug and alcohol abuse. There is a collective sense of defeat to these “side effects” of being directly downstream of the massive plant for Suncor along the Athabasca River.
A trip out to the Suncor plant by river can give one a sense of the size of the intrusion. Where the plant is located, as a crow flies approximately 12 km’s from MacKay, is where the huge volumes of water are sucked out of the river — water necessary for the turning of living earth into tar, then into oil, before further refining into petroleum for the operation of vehicles. Each of these processes uses vast quantities of energy, and produce greenhouse gasses. Some of the worst effects are the various forms of pollution that are expelled into the air and the water in the area right at the plant.
To be certain, the effects of the tar sands operations — exploding at an amazing rate, with seven major projects now on the go — stretch literally across each ocean touching North America, and to the Gulf of Mexico. Everywhere they will go they must unearth forests, grasslands, and disrupt ecosystems including the oceans themselves with future plans for tanker traffic where there were none before. They will deny the rights of property owners of all sorts and attack the self-determination of the indigenous nations who happen to be in their way. The social effects of rapid, vast development will entail social breakdown to varying degrees, as fast infusions of money along with alienated work forces over and again leads to drug and alcohol abuse, violence, elder and spousal abuse and absentee father children. Yet perhaps nowhere is this combined breakdown more acute than in Fort MacKay, where the Chief’s niece had been beaten in the head mere days before our visit.
Today in Fort MacKay, there is sadly a resignation of fate for many members of the community. Syncrude and Suncor make it known that they want to be seen as the people who “take care of the community” and work in constant cooperation with the residents. Yet there are no open forums held, and certainly not a referendum or any actual rendering of decision making to the original owners of the territory. “Keeping you informed” is the slogan they attached to a notice posted recently in the huge Band Office building in town. The notice reads: “Suncor Energy Oil Sands would like to notify local residents that throughout June and July there is a potential for increased flaring and emissions for a scheduled tie-in event. Increased flaring may occur during the shut down and start up of Upgrader 2 [….] If you have concerns, call Suncor’s Community Consultation Office at […]” Flaring, you may recall, is blamed for premature deaths and stillbirths in livestock and even animals elsewhere in Alberta.
All around the area, Syncrude and Suncor put their names on as much as possible, from calendars to booths at events, to parks and cultural happenings — even dominating Treaty Day celebrations.
One of the most important lessons that Cree and other nations across Turtle Island have to offer is the total lack of separation between people and the environment, while the white man in North America has acted differently. The indigenous peoples of the Athabasca region, in particular the community of Fort MacKay, have seen the water turned toxic, the land turned into deserts and where the muskeg was but now is barren piles of sand they see tornadoes. In the community many will no longer eat the fish, the moose nor can they trust the water in their own taps. This doesn’t mean that any or all are definitively “proven” to have the tar sands cause the vast increase in cancers and blood disorders in the community, much like Fort Chipewyan. It means that getting several five gallon jugs of water for the house, being careful about where your food supply is coming from, and trying not to breathe would be common sense. But if you live in the path of a plant that has taken all the life and spews vast quantities of various carcinogenic toxins all day every day, you still have to breathe. And if the windfall of the “boom” hasn’t trickled down to your home, you still drink the tap water. You have no choice. If you live off the land, your refrigerator is the shrinking forest outside your home.
In short, it means your voice has been stolen, along with the land and your very health. That is the humanity of the environment; they are one and the same. “You can’t drink oil to live. You can’t eat money to live,” said Celina. “If you’ve got no water, you’ve got no life.”
* For a full interview with Celina Harpe.