“It’s very, very sad" Fort McKay elders talk about life before the tar sands - APTN NewsAPTN News

“It’s very, very sad” Fort McKay elders talk about life before the tar sands

Brandi Morin
APTN National News
Just outside of the Fort McKay First Nation, sitting behind a chain-link fence is a dark lake dotted with scare-crow like structures dressed in bright orange suits and hard hats bobbing up and down in the water.

This is a tailings pond.

There are warning signs, ‘Danger’ and ‘Be Ware’ posted to discourage people from coming too close.

Every thirty seconds cannons fire warning shots to ward off birds from landing and drinking the water.

Tailings Pond

The entrance to a tailings pond outside the Fort McKay First Nation. Photo: Brandi Morin/APTN

“My mom used to cry when we used to drive to Fort Mac,” said Cece Fitzpatrick, Fort McKay resident. “She would say, ‘It’s hard for me to live in this earth now, because it’s being destroyed.”

Fitzpatrick has witnessed the landscape in the area change drastically throughout her 58 Years.

She said she feels like an alien in her own homeland.

“I feel like we’re being bulldozed. But they (industry) don’t care. We are just a hand full of native people that they really don’t care about…We as native people are supposed to care. The earth is crying to be fixed. We need help.”


Fort McKay First Nation member Cece Fitzpatrick. Photo: Brandi Morin/APTN

Elder Barbara Faichney grew up 25 kilometres down the river from Fort McKay. The river was once high and safe to swim in. The fish were fat and good to eat, but now those memories live on only in stories of times gone by that she shares with her grandchildren.

“I wouldn’t even put my little toe in it (the Athabasca River) because of all the gunk that’s floating in the water. I hate it. I think it’s so gross,” said Faichney.

Just across the river massive berms that surround the tailings pond can be seen. These tailings ponds are unlined, and hold toxic sludge left over from the oil refining process.

Environment Canada studies and industry have confirmed that millions of litres are leaking from these ponds every day.

In fact, potable water is trucked into Fort McKay because of high levels of carcinogenic chemicals in the local water supply.

“We were told we can’t linger around when we take a shower, we jump in and out within five minutes because that water is no good for us- no good for our skin,” said Elder Clara Mercer.

It was only two generations ago that the people of Fort McKay lived off of the land.

Trapping was their main source of income, while they comfortably sustained themselves off of wild vegetation, berries and wild meats, like moose, rabbits, chickens, beaver, muskrats and the fish from the river.


Syncrude tar sands plant south of Fort McKay. Photo: Brandi Morin/APTN

Today, most of the animals have gone away.

“It’s very, very sad,” said Merser.

“I feel very sad, my heart broke when I see all that pile of sand there where we used to pick berries, where we used to go camping when my kids were small. And it’s very sad to try to go somewhere where you used to go and can’t get in there anymore.”

If community members want to carry out their inherent right to hunt or trap on their traditional territories they are usually met by ‘no trespassing’ signs put up by the private corporations mining in the area.

“There’s gates closed and we can’t get in. We’re not allowed to get in there. It used to be where we’d go and where we’d make use of our land, but it’s no longer available to us.”

A new generation is being born subject to previously uncommon skin conditions like eczema and other rashes. There are respiratory problems and peculiar cancers popping up like renal cell carcinoma, but it’s harder to track the diagnosis because some patients seek care in Fort McMurray.

It’s not known if these ailments are directly linked to industry, however, Dr. John O’Connor, an outspoken critic of the tar sands has his suspicions.

“I think the most important health change has been related to the environmental exposure in terms of respiratory issues. It’s an area that sorely needs to be investigated,” said O’Connor.

Dr. John O'Connor

Dr. John O’Connor Photo: Brandi Morin/APTN

O’Connor has worked in the community for 17 years and believes the community is in danger from the toxins carried in the air. He was recently fired by a local health board in Fort Chipewyan, north of Fort McKay for reasons that have not been explained to date.

“They’re totally exposed, totally vulnerable. How am I to know if tomorrow or any day if there’s an odour issue if it’s time to leave? We have no way of knowing,” said O’Connor.

He said in the spring of 2007 a cloud of gas suddenly descended on Fort McKay. It hit the school and made 24 children sick. Five of them were sent to the emergency room and 19 were treated on site along with elders.

“There was no warning, it was a very distressing time for the community,” said O’Connor.

They learned days later that Syncrude had set up a plant to make fertilizer out of sulphur and had an ammonia leak.

One week later Syncrude had another leak, but this time it went south to Fort McMurray. Concerned residents complained to the municipality and Syncrude was forced to temporarily shut down operations.


Last fall came another incident. The odour was strong, it could be smelt inside buildings. O’Connor said he was bombarded with calls from young mothers wondering if they should get their children out of town.

After several back and forth telephone calls between Alberta Environment and Health Canada O’Connor was told there was no cause for concern.

“In terms of knowing what to do and knowing if there’s going to be an impact on public health there’s no communication whatsoever between industry and Alberta Environment. Public Health admitted that they have no way of knowing that if there’s something happening. Alberta Environment tells me they rely on industry to tell them if there’s going to be a public health concern. In effect industry is public health in our region in terms of exposure to the environment.”

The Wood Buffalo Environmental Monitoring Agency monitors the air quality in Fort McKay via canister sampling, however it takes days to get test results back.

Fort McKay is now working to implement an environmental emergency evacuation plan as there is currently nothing in place.

Previous health studies promised by governments have fallen through, however Dr. O’Connor said recent discussions involving Health Canada, industry and Fort McKay have acknowledged there is a need for a comprehensive health study.

I feel very sad, my heart broke when I see all that pile of sand there where we used to pick berries, where we used to go camping when my kids were small.”

Fort McKay Elder Clara Mercer

Fort Mckay is being considered for a Healthy Hearts and Minds Alliance study. It will involve various partners including Environment Canada, Health Canada, University of Toronto, and the Canadian Institute for Health Research and McGill Institute.

The two-year study, slated to start as early as this summer, will screen 200 adult volunteers from the ages of 19 to 69. It will involve history taking, physical examinations and biological sampling. An MRI unit will also be brought to the community.

“An instrument for screening is needed. An MRI is the one tool that could be extremely useful,” said O’Connor.

Chief Jim Boucher isn’t overly concerned about the health or environmental situation in his community. He said people are to blame for pollution, not necessarily industry. That pollution is everywhere, and just imagine what it would be like to live in Beijing, Los Angeles or Mexico City where they sometimes have to wear breathing masks, he said.


Chief Jim Boucher. Photo: Brandi Morin/APTN

“That’s (pollution) because of people and people’s disturbance,” said Boucher. “That’s how you get an increase in mercury because you’re disturbing the soil. You look at the garbage along the highways and how people throw away their garbage. The most regulated things in this country is industry. People don’t have regulations, they dump wherever they want to.”

But Fitzpatrick disagrees, and believes industry is to blame for the destruction of the land and water systems. Although she loves her home, she doesn’t want to live there anymore. She calls tar sands activity pure evil.

“You know how much cat piss you smell at night? Sometimes your eyes sting. It’s the odour from the plants. It always blows north. It’s going to get worse. All industry is not fully developed yet. There’s more and more coming on board.”

Tar sands production is projected to grow from the current level of 1.98 million barrels per day to 3.7 million per day by 2030.

It is the third largest crude oil reserve in the world. The oil sands are located in three major areas in northern Alberta underlying 142,000 square km, however only three per cent of it can be mined because the rest is too deep in the ground to access. Still, an area the size of Switzerland is currently being mined.

Additional tar sands expansion plans have come under scrutiny from climate change experts, top scientists and more recently the Pope. Concerns range from carbon pollution, environmental contamination and violating Aboriginal rights. Experts say the expansion of oil sands is the fastest growing contributor to Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a lot of money at stake concerning a halt to oil sands production. According to Alberta Energy, 2013 estimates, tar sands projects and re-investment in existing oil sands projects will exceed $514 billion while revenues from all existing and new projects will exceed $2,484 billion. Fort McKay takes in approximately $150 million each year.

Fitzpatrick says money shouldn’t outweigh the need to address the environmental damage oil extraction is causing.

“But money speaks louder than words, everybody is money hungry. We as native people are supposed to be the keepers of the land. If it’s getting hurt, we should stop the hurt.”



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2 Responses to ““It’s very, very sad” Fort McKay elders talk about life before the tar sands”

  1. holycow@telus.net'
    papajaxn June 25, 2015 at 3:04 am #

    Appreciate the article and hope the health study may provide some understanding of impacts of our human endeavours on life itself. Thanks for your reporting,

  2. grandma.arlene54@gmail.com'
    Arlene Seegerts June 25, 2015 at 2:44 am #

    Wonderful article, Brandi! However, thumbs down to Dr. O’Connor and Chief Moneybags. I mean, who do they think they are fooling when they “pretend” that the people’s health is not being permanently affected by all the toxins released by what everyone knows is one of the largest industrial complexes on the planet – and quite likely THE largest. I honestly can’t believe that they think people will fall for their attempts to feign ignorance about something as deadly as the ATHABASCA DEATH SANDS. And since the only people trying to cover up the truth are those profiting from it, I guess we are all left to make our own conclusion about who the liars really are, aren’t we? In solidarity & love – FOREVER Idle NO More!!!