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A chief's granddaughter struggles with the good and the evil of oil sands legacy

Fort McMurray resident talks of oil sands pollution
Feather Mcdonald photo by Andrew S. Wright
"When you drive up to Fort McKay, you can automatically tell where you see smoke going up in the sky from Syncrude," Feather Mcdonald, 17, said.  "It's like, 'ew, that smell.'"
Feather grew up in Fort MacKay, moved to Fort McMurray, but returned to McKay for a special e-learning program co-funded by Shell Corporation and the Fort McKay First Nations.

"It looks like white death over there," Feather said, solemnly, pointing in the direction of the oil sands plant. 
Feather is the granddaughter of Dorothy McDonald-Hyde, an important figure in the Fort McKay First Nation community who called for public hearings into the oil industry's impact in the area in 1984. She argued that the oil industry -- which at the same time was the life blood of the community -- had to be held accountable for the high levels of lead found Fort McKay, and argued that the Crown had failed to comply with its Treaty obligations related to land.
A recent provincial oil quality report in Alberta shows much higher levels of air pollution near the oil sands, calling for an investigation into the causes. The air pollution rose to elevated levels at several monitoring sites between Fort McMurray and Fort McKay. Level four is the legal limit set to protect human health, and certain areas teetered dangerously close to that, at level three.
Level four is the legal limit set to protect human health, and certain areas teetered dangerously close to that, at level three.

Although the Alberta environment ministry said it will look into identifying the sources of pollution, for some locals, the cause is already clear -- emissions from nearby oil sands facilities.
Photo of air pollution over oil sands by Andrew S. Wright
 Fort McKay shoulders a complex legacy that balances the loss of traditional hunting grounds against economic prosperity brought by working out profitable deals with oil sands companies. 

"I believe that the oil sands … they really caused a lot of problems with us.  But we really have to depend on them, too.  We would probably still be in poverty if we didn’t make trades with them and become partners with a lot of them. It’s kind of a love hate relationship.

"I love how my family gets all these opportunities to work, but I don’t like the idea of them hurting the environment through their chemicals and tree-cutting tendencies to the land," Feather said.
"The government of Alberta says there’s not health issues. I believe that's bull. Because the oil sands have gotten so bad over here.  When you look out into the distance at night, all you can see is lights all around us.  It’s hard to believe all that smoke and all those chemicals going into the water won’t affect us," she said.


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Special reports

Athabasca tar sands, photographed by Andrew S. Wright

Tar Sands Reporting Project

Our award-winning team's crowd-funded series on the people, places and conflicts associated with Canada's tar sands.