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Former Cree chief discusses Alberta Tar Sands

“There’s a lot of pessimism” in Fort Chipewyan, says George Poitras

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George Poitras, indigenous rights activist and former chief of the Mikisew Cree First Nation in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, spoke at the event “Tar Sands: Life and Death Downstream,” organized by Climate Justice Montreal, QPIRG McGill, and the McGill First Peoples’ House. Poitras sat down with The Daily after the event.


The McGill Daily: What impact has the tar sands had on your community and on your life?

George Poitras: Since about four years ago when the Tar Sands first began to operate in the region where we live, which we call our traditional homeland, our people our hunters our trappers – anyone who uses the land have observed a number of different impacts on our water…water quality, water quantity, impacts to the fish, impacts to the animals – we’ve observed all of those, but much more so in the past 15 years or so.

Our doctor has been concerned about many of the cancers he was observing in our community, cancers which are considered very rare and aggressive, and statistically have been linked to petroleum products. These kinds of cancers, called cholangiocarcinoma or bile duct cancers or soft-tissue cancers…recently its been proven by the Alberta Cancer board – who we forced to do a cancer study – there are at least 30 per cent elevated levels of these cancers in our community.

MD: How has the Alberta government responded to the Tar Sands, and how has that response changed over the last five years as awareness about the Tar Sands grows?

GP: The Alberta government is slowly being forced to be more accountable in the way they manage the Tar Sands. It’s not because they’re being…it’s not because of their free will, it’s not because of that. It’s because a lot of pressure has been applied upon the Alberta government because they’re doing such a bad job at managing the Tar Sands, and have been for forty years. More recently they’ve been made more accountable to establish a more responsible more comprehensive monitoring system, and its because of work by…environmental organizations that are telling the truth about [the Tar Sands] bad impacts on the environment, on the water and so on. But also because of some efforts from my community – fishermen who are exposing, showcasing to the world some of the problem fish.

MD: How would you compare the response of Alberta’s provincial government with that of the federal government?

GP: Up until just a couple months ago they were one and the same in terms of relinquishing their responsibility in managing and regulating the industry. Alberta has a very high senior representative in Washington, D.C. who many people would consider like an ambassador from Alberta. Their sole responsibility there is to promote investment in the tar sands, to lobby all the congressional members,  senators, anybody who’s influential in making the tar sands a possibility for the Americans. The Alberta government does the same thing. I’ve met with the Canadian ambassador in D.C. twice now, and I know with certainty that their role is to promote investment in the Tar Sands. And they do it with other bodies as well, like the U.N. Climate Talks. We know in Copenhagen that both Canada and Alberta were very instrumental in encouraging other countries not to adopt anything that might potentially impact the ability of Tar Sands mined in Alberta to be exported anywhere, and so they’re for thwarting any possibility of any adequate climate agreement.

MD: Looking at your community, are people optimistic, or are people feeling the heaviness of the fight against the tar sands?

GP: People do feel a sense of pessimism, they do feel let down, especially when our doctor did make the claim of unusual cancers in their community and neither [provincial nor federal] government came to our assistance. Many people were feeling very let down, but I think…we’re seeing that we can, as a community contribute to a larger campaign, so I think people are feeling a little bit better, so while there’s a lot of pessimism there is some hope in terms of this industry being better managed  and hopefully managed in a sustainable way, in the long term.

MD: What are the main, practical things that you’re calling for, in the short-term and long-term?

GP: Our community has been calling for a moratorium on any further approvals on any new applications or approvals of expansions of any existing projects until its known what the environmental situation is like. … I mean there are so many issues as far as Tar Sands are concerned and a lot of science has been left behind by the fast pace of development. I think its very logical and rational that until we understand with certainty what the status of the environment and people’s health is that it makes absolute sense to put a moratorium. But at the same time, Alberta and Canada – who are responsible in regulating this industry – should strengthen the regulations, the  legislation around management of the Tar Sands, because it’s very weak, when you compare it to other countries.


—Compiled by Alex Briggs