North Alberta, Canada, is sitting on a great pile of oil which is the product of ancient marine life and geological forces some 200-300 million years ago. The reserve of bitumen lies in “tar sands” under a vast wilderness of forest in the basin of the Athabasca river, 430 km north of Edmonton, the capital of the province. The original inhabitants of this area, the Cree, one of Canada’s aboriginal- or First Nation – peoples, boiled up the tarry sands to repair canoes. It was also used to mend leaky roofs. The first oil company built a mine on the banks of the Athabasca in 1967.
Now the Athabasca tar sands are a global concern. A rise in oil prices and the threat of dwindling supplies has sent global corporations pouncing on Canada. Alberta has approved over 100 extraction projects since 2000. Shell’s Athabasca oil sands project meant cutting down forest the size of 33,702 ice rinks. But soon this will be much more. Working mines account for only one seventh of the total land that has been leased for the oil sands development. An area the size of Greece could be stripped of it’s forest.
On the Northern shore of lake Athabasca, Fort Chipewyan was founded more than 300 years ago by a Scotsman, Roderick Mackenie, but First Nation people have been here since the Ice Age, nomadic hunter-gatherers who lived close to nature, ice-fishing and hunting muskrat and moose.
The community has evolved to a steady 1,200, living in modest clapboard houses. The old world prevails but there are signs of the modern worls with a cinema, an ice-rink, an adult education centre.
Fort Chipewyan has an ambiguous relationship with the oil industry. It has bought much needed jobs, paved streets and running water to every home. But there is also a deep sense of anxiety: a study by the Alberta health services in February 2009 confirmed elevated levels of cancers in the community. In 2006 a local doctor recorded five cases of cholangiocarcinoma, a rare cancer of the bile duct.
The Athabasca river flows through their community, that is how they get their drinking water. The locals suspect contaminated water and they believe it has reached their food chain in the traditional food they consume on a regular basis such as duck, fish, geese, mouse and muskrat.
The First Nations people in this area are fighting a huge battle to be consulted by the oil companies before development is permitted. They are not against the companies, they need the jobs and they benefit from the good economy but as a small community it is hard for them to have their concerns heard.
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