In wake of tailings leaks, Inuit elder says nations must help each other ‘to stop this abuse’
Pollution from oilsands tailings dominated the agenda at the Dene Nation Water Summit this week as northern Indigenous leaders and community members discussed how to respond to recent news of multiple leaks hidden for months from neighbouring Indigenous communities.
The annual Dene Nation Water Summit is taking place this week in Inuvik, N.W.T., amid a barrage of national and international media coverage over Imperial Oil’s leaks in northern Alberta that went on for nearly nine months outside the public eye.
Representatives from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) — which called out the company and the Alberta regulator for failing to notify them about the leaks — updated attendees on the situation and what can be done. ACFN has asked Imperial Oil for access to the Kearl site where the leaks originated to do community monitoring and urged other nations to sample and monitor their lands and waters for contaminants. ACFN is also considering legal action against both Imperial Oil and the provincial regulator for the contamination and lack of communication.
“We have to help each other out in order to stop this abuse so that people can live in their own regions, happily,” said Mary Okheena, an elder from Ulukhaktok, N.W.T., representing her Inuvialuit community. She lives far from the oilsands, on an island in the Beaufort Sea, and says this abuse to the land — and by extension to people, animals, plants and all beings — must be stopped before it gets worse and impacts other regions and communities.
“It's almost like a silent killer that we have to stop before it really affects the people and the land,” Okheena told Canada’s National Observer in a phone interview.
Okheena is one of many elders gathered in Inuvik for the water summit to share their knowledge and life experience. All the discussions have been punctuated with “the cries of the elders, the cries of the people,” she said. “They're asking for help. They're trying to get their voices heard.”
But to be heard, they have to put their voices together as a nation because the calls of individual regions often fall on deaf ears, she said.
“We need our leaders to start speaking up for us … not to be scared,” she said. ACFN Chief Allan Adam has courage aplenty when it comes to speaking out about the tailings leaks. In recent weeks, he has called out Imperial Oil, the Alberta Energy Regulator and the provincial government both for failing to notify the nation and responding with suggestions this is merely a communications issue.
At the summit, elders and participants are trying to give leaders the power and the tools to fight for them, said Okheena. Many elders are going to be passing away, and when their time comes, she wants them to be satisfied in knowing the nations are pulling together for that fight, she added.
Several presentations offered information and toolkits to push back on specific issues, for example, oilsands tailings.
There was talk of using legislation like the federal Species at Risk Act, Chief Robert Charlie-Tetlichi of the Inuvik Native Band told Canada’s National Observer in an interview.
He noted the presence of boreal caribou, which are listed as threatened under the law, in the Mackenzie River Valley, downstream of the oilsands.
“If I remember correctly, we can use that as one of the tools, if you will, in the toolbox, to make government accountable for ensuring the safety of the resources that we depend on, which includes water and fish, caribou, moose and what have you,” Chief Charlie-Tetlichi said.
Inuvik is in the northwest corner of the Northwest Territories, thousands of kilometres away from the tailings ponds that line the glacier-fed Athabasca River. But the Athabasca River flows north into the Mackenzie River Basin’s vast network of rivers and waterways, including the Mackenzie River itself, which empties into the Beaufort Sea.
“Being at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, we have concerns on potential impacts to us,” said Chief Charlie-Tetlichi. These concerns are likely shared by other communities along the river, he added.
The Northwest Territories and Alberta have a water management agreement, which requires them to inform each other about incidents affecting shared waters, but the Northwest Territories government found out about the Kearl leaks at the same time as the public.
“What does that say about the agreement?” asked Chief Charlie-Tetlichi, noting Indigenous communities in the Northwest Territories aren’t parties to the agreement. The territorial government has already activated the agreement’s dispute resolution measures.
Seepage from four tailings ponds began in May 2022, and then 5.3 million litres of water reportedly escaped from a tailings overflow drainage pond on Feb. 4, 2023, according to the environmental protection order issued by the Alberta Energy Regulator two days after the spill.
Federal Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault has voiced concern about the situation, particularly Alberta’s silence. When something like this happens, the province has to report it to Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) within 24 hours, which it failed to do, said Guilbeault. ECCC has told Imperial Oil it must act immediately to prevent any seepage from entering fish-bearing waters to ensure the company complies with the Fisheries Act.
Enforcement officers will continue to visit the site, monitor cleanup and collect more inspection information to determine whether the company is complying with the law, according to a March 15 press release.
On Tuesday evening, Guilbeault met with Alberta Minister of Environment and Protected Areas Sonya Savage regarding the ongoing spill situation at the Kearl oilsands mine. Guilbeault introduced the idea of a joint federal-provincial-Indigenous working group, with participation from oil companies, “to address the immediate concerns around the Kearl oilsands mine situation to restore trust and give transparency to all parties involved.”
Imperial Oil has said that based on its monitoring, the released fluids did not enter any waterways and there have been no impacts on local drinking water sources and wildlife.
At the summit, doctors, including Fort McMurray physician John O’Connor, called for more studies on the health impacts of tailings and noted a high prevalence of rare cancers in the small Fort Chipewyan population.
This presentation was particularly alarming to 24-year-old Keenan Hunter-McKay, a youth delegate representing the Fort Resolution Métis government.
Hunter-McKay has been fishing on Great Slave Lake and Little Buffalo River for as long as he can remember. He loves to fish, so hearing elders and community members at the summit talk about the impacts of contaminants on fish was upsetting.
At home in Fort Resolution, Keenan says elders have told him about catching fish with blackened livers, and he thinks more fish studies should be done to determine the level of contaminants and whether they are safe to eat.
This year’s water summit “shows governments that we are a united front, that we won't stand for the desecration of our lands and our waters,” said Hunter-McKay. “We won't just stand idly by while they do it and while they are lying to us.”
Natasha Bulowski, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer