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The primarily Indigenous, 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 alleged wealth is largely due to the fact that the community is surrounded by, and on top of, tar sand.
Home to about 500 residents, Fort Mackay is the only official community north of Fort McMurray on highway 63, and lies 40-odd kilometres down the Athabasca River. On a remote northern highway like this one, one would normally see car traffic every few minutes. On this particular road, cars go by every few seconds. When shifts at tar sands processing plants change over--the plants operate around the clock--the traffic is bumper-to-bumper and slows way beneath posted limits. Where two generations ago, there was nothing but muskeg forest, there is now sandy wasteland. Where there were rivers, there are now nine-storey-deep holes. Where there were lakes with fish, there are now "tailing ponds" filled with toxic waste left over from the extraction process--cannons are fired to prevent birds from landing in them and dying. Syncrude's largest such "pond" is surrounded by one of the largest earthen-built dams on the planet.
"Every which direction you look, they're [tar sands extraction plants] all around us, they're all around. 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?" Celina Harpe told us. An elder in Fort MacKay, Harpe has lived here all her life. When the mining operations began in the 1960s, they brought many changes, including serious health problems, to the community.
"People only died of old age in our days...very seldom--maybe the 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. Many locals who ran trap lines nearby lost their lines when the land was "scraped off," in mining terms. Those whose trap lines were not destroyed describe the disappearance of many of the animals they depended upon for their food and their livelihood.
Blueberries and Saskatoon berries were once so abundant that everyone had more than enough to flavour their favorite recipes. Now, locals report, they are not scarce--they are simply gone.
Today, there is suspicion about the collusion of the Fort MacKay administration with Syncrude, Suncor and other corporations: companies that have been the driving force of the drastic changes in living conditions that have occurred in Fort MacKay.
The facts of the drastic changes visited upon Fort MacKay by operations like Syncrude and Suncor are not disputed. Few speak out as defiantly as Harpe. Whether because of the perceived inevitability of tar sands mining or the millions of dollars in "partnerships" offered by oil companies, the local Indian Act government--the Fort Mackay First Nation--is going along with mining. (Under the Indian Act, the federal Minister of Indian Affairs has control over the funding of the Band.) While many others oppose the mining, they are less apt to go on the record in a small community like Fort MacKay.
Now, the Fort MacKay First Nation wants to begin a new joint venture with Shell in the tar sands themselves. This means that Fort MacKay will likely find itself opposed by the two First Nations of Fort Chipewyan, which is downstream from the tar sands. Fort Chipewyan has seen a drastic increase in rates of rare forms of cancer and other illnesses, but has not seen the millions in investment and "community partnerships."
Perhaps as a result, its representatives oppose the expansion of the tar sands, and may find themselves in conflict with Fort MacKay in the approval process. However, it is an "open secret" that the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board review process is not much of a process. The board has yet to refuse a single application for tar sand mining.
Today, the problems of Fort McMurray have extended to Fort MacKay. There are many victims of random violence in the small community, violence often tied to drug and alcohol abuse. Downstream of the massive plant for Suncor along the Athabasca River, there is a collective sense of defeat to these "side-effects." And when you cannot see the plumes rising out of the stacks, you can smell them in Fort MacKay's living rooms--the smell of burning tar all day, every day.
A trip out to the Suncor plant by river can give one a sense of the size of the intrusion. The plant is located approximately 12 kilometres from MacKay as the crow flies. There, huge volumes of water are sucked out of the river. 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. Suncor has colonized an island in the middle of the Athabasca River--turning it into a giant tailings island of waste material. The size of the dykes has been growing for 40 years. Some day, they may give way.
The speed of growth of the tar sands, the quantities of money that will be infused to develop them, and the vast influx of migrant workers from other parts of Canada and beyond trigger social breakdown in varying degrees. Alienated, unhappy work forces will abuse drugs and alcohol, leading to violence, prostitution, elder and spousal abuse and children fathered by workers who are long gone.
Perhaps nowhere are the symptoms of this breakdown more acute than in Fort MacKay, where the niece of a top band council member was hospitalized after being beaten over the head days before our visit.
Today in Fort MacKay, there is a resignation of fate for many members of the community. Syncrude and Suncor make it known that they want to be seen as the companies who "take care" of the community and work in constant co-operation with the residents. Yet there are no open forums and holding a referendum or giving any actual decision-making power to the original owners of the territory is out of the question.
"Keeping you informed" is the slogan attached to a notice posted recently in the Band Council's 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..."
Elsewhere in Alberta, flaring is blamed for premature deaths and stillbirths in livestock and human beings.
Throughout the area, Syncrude and Suncor make their names as public as possible -- on calendars, on booths at events, at parks and cultural happenings; their names even permeate annual Treaty Day celebrations.
The Indigenous peoples of the Athabasca region, in particular the community of Fort MacKay, have watched the water turn toxic, muskeg turn into desert. Some community members will no longer eat the fish or moose and many can't trust the water flowing from their own taps. "You can't drink oil to live. You can't eat money to live," said Harpe. "If you've got no water, you've got no life."
Most residents of Fort MacKay aren't as publicly outspoken. But when they get to talking, a transition sometimes takes place. Talk of the inevitability of the projects--of the "it's bad, but what can you do?" variety--is briefly sidelined, and an anger shines through. Words like "crime against humanity" and "getting away with murder" issue from people who now make their living from the tar sands and related employment. In many cases, it surprises the person speaking as much as it surprises us. It seems that having the names "Suncor" and Syncrude" attached to radio commercials, books, events and more has an isolating effect on believing what one sees with one's own eyes.
It makes one wonder what prevailing opinion would be if it were not widely assumed that the unlimited expansion of the tar sands is inevitable and unstoppable. Perhaps that confidence will come in a small community if challenging the tar sands rights to operate starts first in larger centres.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.