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Tar sands, cancer and becoming an Elder: stories from Fort Chipewyan

Emma Pullman is writing stories from impacted communities on the front lines of the tar sands in the lead up to the 4th Annual Healing Walk, a spiritual gathering and 14km walk to pray for the healing of the land and people at the front lines of tar sands expansion. The Healing Walk is July 5-6, 2013 in Fort McMurray, Alberta. You can follow her work here and on

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Industry does not care... they come into my community and we go to meetings with them, and they offer us trinkets, like when the Treaty was signed. Instead of beads, now it’s mugs with their names on it.”

But what good is a mug if you can't drink the water? They took away our water; they destroyed it. As the elders say, if there’s anything more miraculous in this world, it’s water. Water is life. Water is everything. Everything needs water. But once you’ve spoiled that water, you can’t make it clean.”

Alice's community has seen the changes to the water firsthand.

"We had a friend who went up from here to Fort McMurray by boat, and as he passed Suncor, his boat was just full of sludge. Oil. Now that was something that never happened before. So where the hell did that come from? It’s leaking. It’s gotta be leaking when the tailings pond is right beside the river. So at this end we get the sick fish, we get the oil spills, we get less water for us. All the places that we used to go boating, you know our hunting places in spring, summer and fall, we can’t go there because there’s no water. And the animals are affected by it. We’ve had ducks we’ve opened up that have just been full of worms.”

“Industry will deny it and say they’re following the protocol and that what they’re putting back in the river is good."

She then takes out her camera and scrolls through photos of the delta, her camp, and finally arrives at a pictures of a fish. “Our friend caught this fish. And it was a walleye, beautiful size, that had a big humongous cyst on the side.” Rigney shows me the picture, and I see a red cyst on the fish. She goes on, “And it’s not uncommon to see fish like that” she tells me. “We can’t eat those fish.”

The weekend before, she caught a jack fish. “It had a piece on the side,” (she makes a gesture about the size of her hand) “that looked like it had a fight with another fish. When we pulled it out and touched it, the skin dissolved. It literally turned to mush. I have never seen that before.”

It should be one in a hundred thousand

Rigney was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago. Her family physician, Dr. David O'Connor, who has diagnosed numerous members of the community with cancer, gave her the diagnosis. "I don't know if it's connected to the land. I had two aunts who had breast cancer, so I had a 10% chance of getting it." She continues, "I can't say for sure, but cancer seems to be more common."

Just before her 60th birthday, she went through chemotherapy and 16 rounds of radiation. She remembers realizing she had cancer when she lost her hair.

For a year now, she's been cancer free. She sighs, "It just feels good to be alive. Everyday, I thank the Creator for giving me another day."

According to both Rigney and Dr. David O'Connor, there are more and more rare cancers afflicting the community.

These cancers are so rare "it should be one in one hundred thousand, and here we have three rare cancers of the soft tissue and bile. Grand was a young man, just totally strong and within six months, we were burying him. The bus driver, Albert, he was just turning jaundiced and they shipped him out, and in less than a year he was gone. You look at all the diseases and it can't just be coincidence. And as for the breast cancer I had, I have that least five ladies that I know of in this community just in the last few years [who have had cancer]. No sooner did I finish my treatment, another lady was diagnosed."

Suncor had another spill 

Alice's husband once brushed his teeth with water from the Athabasca River, and had to be treated for dysentery. "We don't drink the water anymore," she says. "Even for washing we collect rainwater -- we don't use the river water. Now it's not uncommon this time of the year to see fish belly up."

The reason for the recent fish deaths?

"Suncor had another spill."

The recent Suncor spill on March 25 dumped contaminated water containing naphthenic acids (chemicals that occur naturally in bitumen) as well as salts, ammonia, selenium, boron and arsenic into the Athabasca River. According to the provincial government, the undiluted contaminated water dumped into the Athabasca River on March 25 spill was toxic, and while the government examines whether diluted samples would be toxic, Rigney says she has seen the effects first hand in her community.

And she’s not confident that Suncor is going to take responsibility for its actions. In 1970, a massive spill "shut down the fishery here for two years, where for a lot of people, that was their main income.” In the small community of 1,400, over 100 worked in the fisheries. After a 1982 spill, Suncor was only slapped with was a $8,000 fine. Less than two months later, it it dumped more oil into the Athabasca.

Alice's own work on the water has also suffered from tar sands development. For years, she ran a tourism company, taking tourists from all over the world to experience what she called 'Alberta's best kept secret'. "Most of our tourists were Europeans and Americans. And we had a really top-notch service" she tells me. She leans forward in her chair, "But tourists don't come any longer. Industry took that away. Now they don't want to come. We're downstream from the dirtiest project on earth. And the way I see it, we're going to end up as refugees in our own country. In our own land."

Right now, Alice believes that politicians are turning their back on her community. "They don't even have the nerve or the guts to come up here and meet with us and see what they're sacrificing -- our home."

Alice says, "I would love for Alison Redford to come here and I would love to cook her some fish and give her a glass of water from the Athabasca."

"What's it going to be like when he's 61?"

Rigney tells me of an oil company's pipeline proposal that will pump tar sands crude from Fort Hills to Fort Saskatchewan, crossing the Athabasca River. She tells me, "They insist that the pipeline will be safe because it will be 150 feet under the river." So Rigney posed them a question: "When all this is said and done, when all the oil is gone, what are you going to do about that pipeline? Are you gonna take it out? And they said no."

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