Athabasca Chipewyan spokeswoman calls tar sands expansion policies "cultural genocide"

Photo of Eriel Deranger by Linda Solomon

Her people are on "the precipice," their health and culture poisoned by oil sands pollution. They are one of the First Nations closest and most exposed to hazardous effects of tar sands pollution, and the damage has been devastating, Eriel Deranger of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said. 

"It's a genocide. It's happening slowly, but we are dying off. We're still drinking the water, and we're eating the fish, but it's getting poisoned," Deranger, a keynote speaker at the Hollyhock Social Change Institute who works on the front lines of her people's legal battle against unchecked tar sands development, said yesterday.

Living off the land has always been a basic part of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation culture, she said.  But now maintaining connection to culture can be dangerous, if not lethal.

"I'm still eating the fish, because I don't want the tar sands to change who I am,” she said. But I still get these moments of panic after, because I don't know what toxins are in the fish and going into my body -- nobody knows."

A fight for the soul of a culture

The need to fight to protect her land has been passed down from her parents, Deranger said.

"Until just 20 years ago --- that's in my lifetime -- the Athabasca Chipewyan were a subsistence society. That means that everything we needed, we got from the land,” Deranger, a 34-year-old mother of two, said.

"My parents met at the American Indian movement. They lived off their land in Saskatchewan until they were forcibly removed, at gunpoint." 

Her father in particular, she said, was raised to respect the land and traditions of his people.

"My dad was a bush man. He was forced into the residential schools, but he ran away and he lived with his dad in the woods. My dad has never lived in the white man's world. But he looks at the tar sands development, and all he can see is what it's doing to the earth."

When Eriel was 11, her father took her  to Fort McMurray -- a much smaller community in those days -- to show her the dirty, polluted waters off a path near the Syncrude plant, which had been dumping toxic waste into the territory.

"He showed this to me and said, 'This is what your mom and I are standing up against. But – it's going to be your fight.'"

He then took her up to Fort McKay, where she learned the traditional ways of living off the land: hunting, trapping, fishing, sleeping under the stars.

That was the best week of my life,” she said. “I learned how to hunt, to trap, to live off the land, and it showed us what we were fighting to protect."

After working with Aboriginal youth in inner cities for a time, she came back to join the fight her parents began. In her case, this meant protecting the land from the destruction from the growing development of the tar sands.  She began researching Aboriginal treaty rights that could prevent further destruction of her traditional territory. 

Moving from the margins

When Shell signed a contract with her people to develop two open-pit tar sands mines, for example, it was done under the condition that Shell would “provide measures to lessen impact of these mines on ACFN, including agreements to address environmental issues and mitigation. They also said they would contribute funds to build a youth lodge.”

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Another Try

Being my last comment was deleted, I thought that I would try this again.


Fort Chip is 180 km north of the oil sands industrial sector. The closest First Nations Group is the MacKay Tribe located right in the middle - only kms away from Syncrude and Suncor.


Fort MacKay is fully supportive of the oil sands industry and are the wealthiest First Nations Group in North America because of their close ties to industry.

The claims that oil sands operations are poisoning the Athabasca River is opposite from what has been found through river sediment PAH analysis. The data shows that PAH concentrations in the river sediment has actually decreased since mining activites began 40 years ago.

The reason being is average snow fall in the Rockies has decreased in the past 60 years and so less bitumen erodes from the river banks upstream of Fort Chip. These 'poisons' Fort Chip is referring to is naturally occuring and if they are indeed the source of the problem, then it can be argued that oil sands operations are the largest remediation project in human history as it is cleaning up the environment.

My great grandfather was from Fort MacKay and I lived in Fort McMurray and worked as an environmental scientist and reclamation experts - so I know a thing or two on this topic.

Fully supportive...except

Yeah, fully supportive except when they spoke out about it just recently


It's a very nuanced topic. Obviously some First Nations have benefited hugely, becoming highly successful businesspeople over the oil sands. Jobs are good. 

But how do you look at those diseased fish, the cancer deaths, the obliteration of a culture and call that a fair trade for jobs?

Recommend you look at this and decide. Part 1 and 2




Why did PETA have to go ruin everything?

If she does not want to join the 21st Century then that is her choice. Here is a snapshot of Chipewyan lifestyle back in the good'ole days as written by an early 20th Century observer;


I am a hypocrit, driving a car to generate some cash in the pocket while thinking I care about the future of the earth. It will be better when humans are gone. I wonder if the people who are complaining about the petroleum industry fly in airplanes, drive vehicles and use computers. I don't have an answer regarding how to save the humans and other species that will become extinct. Does anyone else?

Time to think logically and not emotionally

Ms Deranger can easily findout if she is being poisoned from the fish, water and land by getting tests done for heavy metals and organophosphates. It is illogical and irrational to eat fish that might be contaminated but to provide no facts except the statement "I'm still eating the fish, because I don't want the tar sands to change who I am,” she said. " is emotional drabble. 

Get the facts, sue the daylights out of the polluters if you have the facts and make the world a better place.

Also the concept that she wants to live like her ancestors is emotional drabble. Most of the world does NOT want to live like their ancestors - this is called industrialization and gives people education, security from the elements (nature is fairly dangerous), healthcare and so much more.

Save the environment with facts not feelings. 

re: environment

It's really something to hear that other countries are more in tune with preserving the enviroment than canada. let people live off the land for heaven sake. aboriginal people will never beable to please mainstream canadians ,no matter what they do.''they were hoping to eliminate them,but it didn't happen ,and it will not happen ,so live with it ,everyone besides mainstream also have a right to a voice.


BC Problems

BC residents and Victorians in particular feel ashamed that one of their major cities operates below third-world standards. Shame and embarrassment about our present sewage treatment system dumping RAW sewage into the Ocean. Maybe BC residents should clean up their own back yard before giving advice to other area's of Canada ??

Yeah.... casue having oil in

Yeah.... casue having oil in the ground, seeping up through all the layers and saturating it has no effect on the ground water. It doesn't pollute anything, sitting there, as the worlds largest naturally occuring oil spill. Nope, not at all. Which is why the water never smelled or tasted funny. Nope, having oil saturated soil has no dleterious effects at all. But scooping it up and making it usable. EVVVVVIIIIIIILLLLLLLLLL.



  And way to cheapen the word genocide to, btw.

Living off the Land

It wasn't and isn't just Aboriginal Peoples who live off the land -I am an Aboriginal --also did and do many  non-aboriginal people--We the aboriginals are willing to shout out our disapproval of Oil sands and Government unfairness and bulliness to us the Canadian public --the non aboriginal fear speaking out against attorities.---This has been my experieence living in Alberta has been. "do not speak against oil or government heads" is what I am told daily because I keep trying to have Albertains express an oppinion. Yeah or Nay but nothing --silence --walk away.The news reports of those who do speak out against and state what oil has ruined their life are always stating -we are not against the oil industry. God helps us all.




tar sands

With the gov now making attempts to regulate cell and cable service on behalf of the consumer I find a time to point out the wrongness of the gov.

This gov has been pushing the expansion  of tar sands and all the bling associated with tar sands.

They have had Dr.'s discredited due to opinions of health care in the region of Athabasca.

Scientists have been silenced  in the public record of their findings. Programs have been cut to monitor the tar sands.

The gov has done the due diligence that was the responsibility of the corporation , not tax payers.

The tar sands have been subsidized in the billions and they make a profit and share with their shareholders.

Now the Harper gov has butted into the cell and cable industries to attempt to control how they get paid for services rendered. These companies don't harm the health of the Canadian population. The Harper gov is going after an industry that is not a right or necessarily a need, the industries hit are industries that provide a privilege.  This is where our gov feels the Canadian public from bad policy.

Some people need to awaken to what is really wrong with how Canada moves forward by targeting industries that are for entertainment and communication and not targeting industries that harm water, land and air quality.