ALBERTA, CANADA — First the bugs began to disappear.
Eriel Deranger, spokesperson for Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says that was only the beginning. Her small community of Fort Chipewyan is increasingly affected by the expansion of the world’s third largest crude oil deposit, the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, Canada.
In the last decade, the town of Fort Chipewyan in northeastern Alberta has witnessed its caribou herds threatened with extinction, a decline in the numbers of migratory birds, and elevated rates of certain types of cancer.
An independent study conducted from 2006 to 2009 was inconclusive about the cause of the rise in cancer.
“The most recent statistics indicate that overall rates of cancer are not higher in Fort Chipewyan compared to the Alberta average,” John Muir, spokesperson for Alberta Health Services, told IPS.
“However, the rate is higher for specific cancers such as lung cancer. Independent medical studies have found no causal links between oil sands development and the community health downstream.”
Many locals do not believe it is a coincidence that cancer rates and tar sands production have both increased. Nevertheless, the community is pleased with its new health facilities, which were largely paid for by the oil company Suncor.
Oil companies continue to fund projects for the Native people. In 2009, they donated more than $23 million to local organizations, including youth and community programs. For a lot of local indigenous people, this support is bittersweet.
Fort Chipewyan has struggled economically since the fur trade, on which it heavily depended, was outlawed in the early 1970s. Now, with fears of contamination compounding the hardships of living off the land, many residents have turned to the tar sands for employment.
This is a move encouraged by oil companies, one of which provides a fly in/fly out service from the town for its workers every two weeks.
“[The oil] industry is proud of the solid relationship it has with Aboriginal people…[and] has created mutually beneficial employment and business opportunities,” said Geraldine Anderson of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.
The town’s elders have mixed feelings about younger generations leaving to work in the tar sands.
“Our people are being held as economic hostages in the race to develop our homeland. The elders who lived through the end of the fur trade, and then the [economic] depression…are now seeing this resurgence,” Deranger says. “This economy on the one hand is ensuring that their families are fed …and [is] allowing new and better health facilities…people are able to live well.
“However it’s also going hand in hand with the loss of land, the loss of culture, the loss of identity.”