EP. 3 / Canada
First Nations versus Fossil Fuels
As a climate and energy campaigner for Greenpeace Canada, Melina Laboucan Massimo is guiding a tour of the Oil Sands for a delegation from the Nobel Women’s Initiative. I’m thankful that’s she’s invited me to come along. The group is led by 1997 Nobel Peace Prize winner Jody Williams and includes environmentalists and leading female scientists from Canada.
Over the next 10 days, the Nobel Women’s group will be following the proposed path of the Northern Gateway Pipeline, meeting the affected Indigenous communities and representatives from Government and the Oil Industry.
I think people need to come and see it (the Oil Sands) firsthand to really know what the impact is. That’s making a huge difference for me.
It’s something that affects you so deeply into your core that I don’t think it’s something you can even really articulate of how that feels. It’s like a part of you is dying along with the land.
Since about 1978, about $14 billion has been taken out of our traditional territory but to this day, my family still goes without running water. What we’re seeing already in the tar sands is kind of a slow cultural and environmental genocide.
So that I can get a true sense of the magnitude of destruction around the town of Ft. McMurray, Melina arranged for a plane to fly us over the Oil Sands. Before we took off, the pilot advised us that we should only fly for 30 minutes. The amount of toxins in the air we’re flying over poses a health risk.
A half hour drive north of the town of Ft. McMurray, the epicenter of the Alberta Oil Sands, the Ft. McKay First Nation has had to accept the expansion of oil sands exploration that today surrounds their territory. A 2016 study by Alberta’s Health Ministry and this provinces energy regulator confirmed what members of Ft. McKay have always known, the air quality around their community contains chemical substances in amounts beyond what is recommended for human health.
Seriously, we have nothing. Our air is gone, the noise around here sucks, the water is gone, the land is gone. You know we don’t have anything to live off in this area at all.
Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers represents about ninety percent of the crude oil and natural gas producers in the country.
If you look at how much oil in the oil sands is in the ground, it’s actually 1.7 trillion barrels. We could be producing that resource at today’s level of production for over 400 years.
Based in Calgary, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers promotes and lobby’s on behalf of the oil and gas industry in Canada. They estimate that of the 171 billion barrels of oil accessible to today’s industry, roughly 165 million of those barrels are contained in Alberta’s Oil Sands.
From Ft. McMurray, I travelled south to Calgary to meet their Vice President and discuss the history and impact of Oil Sands production.
Our youth are losing all their traditional ways of life. They just go to work at the oil plants because they want to make money.
Celina Harpe and Cecilia Fitzpatrick are both lifelong residents of the Ft. McKay First Nation who’ve lived here long enough to see how Oil Sands production has affected their people and community. Melina is taking me to Celina’s house to talk about the changes they’ve experienced in their lifetimes and the devastating impact it’s having on their culture.
This tailings pond has hydrocarbons, acids, cyanide, mercury, lead, and heavy metals… so, it’s a toxic sludge. These are really close to fresh water that people use for drinking water, and that makes a lot of sense with people having elevated rates of cancers, or finding fish that have tumors or lesions.
The scale of Oil Sands production around Ft. McMurray and the scope of damage being done to the environment, wildlife and local Indigenous communities is something I could never have imagined. While the economic benefits for Canada have long been touted, it’s going to take generations, if ever, to restore this land, water and air back to health. In the meantime, the poor air and water quality continues to generate an increasing rash of respiratory and other health afflictions for the Indigenous people who live here.
As Melina and the group from the Nobel Women’s Initiative stay on in Ft. McMurray to hear the point of view from Alberta Government and oil industry officials, I’m heading due east across northern Alberta and British Columbia, over the proposed Northern Gateway route, to its planned terminus in Kitimat, BC.