A visit to Fort Chipewyan as First Nations seek answers on Imperial Oil spills

Amid the fallout from Imperial Oil’s tailings pond spills in northern Alberta, we headed up an ice road to check in with the affected communities
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Reporter Drew Anderson talking with Calvin Waquan, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation. Waquan has a box of bottled water next to him, with oil mixed in the bottles.

Every Thursday, we give you a glimpse of how a big feature comes to life, or how we wrangle with freedom of information laws to get to the heart of a story. This week, we’re doing it a bit differently — with a dispatch from Fort Chipewyan, a remote town nestled on the edge of Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta, where we’re currently in the middle of reporting a story. 

Our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson called me from Fort Chipewyan this morning, before driving down an ice-covered winter road on the way back to Fort McMurray.

Imperial Oil representatives were also in Fort Chipewyan last night, facing community members for the first time since the company’s Kearl oilsands tailings pond started leaking wastewater last May, blighting the surrounding area with dangerous levels of arsenic, hydrocarbons and other chemicals. After keeping it quiet — along with another reported 5.3-million-litre spill in early February — they prepared for an hour-long session for community members, starting with a slideshow presentation.

“But they didn’t really get to the presentation,” Drew told me. 

Calvin Waquan, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, was among the community members who interrupted the meeting in search of answers. 

“Calvin put oil in water bottles, walked up to the front of the room and said, ‘Would you drink this?’ ” Drew recalled. “He told me before the meeting that this was something a relative had done almost 20 years ago, after another meeting after another problem with oilsands. This has been going on for a long time.”

“People were visibly frustrated with the lack of transparency, the lack of honesty — about the fact that it took them this long to come to the community to answer these questions. And they’re frustrated that this is sort of all they get,” Drew said.
Chief Allan Adam, centre, Metis President Kendrick Cardinal, right, listen as Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro, facing away, speaks at a meeting with Imperial Oil representatives in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta

There’s a justifiable fear of drinking water in the community, even though municipalities, the province and Imperial have tested it and said it’s safe. Indigenous communities in this remote region already face higher than normal rates of bile duct and gall bladder cancers they believe to be linked to the oilsands.

Then there are the fears about food: Environment and Climate Change Canada testing showed the wastewater is harmful to fish and ordered Imperial to take action before it’s too late. 

Jean L’Hommecourt, a Denesuline woman who lives just outside of Fort McKay, harvested a moose before she learned about the contamination.

“So now she’s wondering, ‘Do I need to feel guilty or afraid that I have fed a contaminated animal to Elders and to loved ones?’ ” Drew told me.

People in this region are surrounded by the natural world. They live off the land and the water, just as they have for time immemorial, and they’re concerned about how this will impact them.

“There’s a determination not to lose that way of life,” Drew said. 

That’s one of the reasons why Drew wanted to be on the ground to report in-depth — he wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the people who live there, something that just isn’t the same over Zoom.

“I hope that with all the conversations, I’m able to paint an honest portrait of what’s happening in the community in the wake of the spill,” Drew said.

Luckily, he’s accompanied by photojournalist Amber Bracken, who has been documenting those heartfelt exchanges. (She’s also the one with the ice road driving skills, thankfully for Drew.)

Keep an eye out for the story in the weeks to come.

Take care and don’t keep quiet,

Karan Saxena
Audience fellow

Image of Michelle Cyca leaning on a log.

There’s a new editor in town!

Michelle Cyca often found a lot of the journalism on Indigenous issues really disappointing. With her background in public health, she realized she had a knack for figuring out how to communicate information in clear, accessible and compelling ways. That, coupled with her deep love for storytelling, is what ultimately led her to the world of journalism.

“I’m an Aries so my general approach in life is that if I see something being done poorly I want to get in there and do it myself,” Michelle said

Well, luckily for us, she joins The Narwhal as an editor with a focus to expand our coverage of Indigenous-led conservation. 

Join us in welcoming Michelle to the pod, and read her profile to find out what her surprising skill is despite “zero natural athletic talents.”


Whooo’s messing with the maps?

Reporter Sarah Cox recently learned something that put the federal government in an awkward position: 24 new logging cutblocks (quietly approved by B.C.) for the Trans Mountain pipeline it owns are destroying spotted owl habitat

It’s the same endangered raptor — only three of which remain in Canada’s wild — federal Environment and Climate Change Minister Steven Guilbeault said he would move to protect using a rare emergency order under the Species At Risk Act.

An earlier investigation by Sarah found half of the owl’s core critical habitat, including old-growth forests, was erased from federal maps after talks with the B.C. government. Those removed areas overlap with some of the Trans Mountain cutblocks.

Go read Sarah’s piece that details the tensions between protecting B.C.’s alarmingly waning biodiversity and the forestry industry.


This week in The Narwhal

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By Lindsay Campbell
After the capital’s first season in 52 years without skating on the canal, residents consider doctors’ call for Winterlude to drop Enbridge Gas.

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The east gets the least: new TTC service cuts hit Scarborough hardest
By Brennan Doherty

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