The Alberta tar sands and First Nations health

Canadians, in general, are well aware of the unjustly negative health outcomes of Aboriginal people – we know that there is something wrong.  However, many of us are oblivious to the current specific issues impacting Aboriginal people.

The tar sands in Alberta and their negative impact on the health and lifestyle of the Native communities in the area are one such issue.  Recently, questions have been raised about the expansion of the Jackpine Oilsands, a mining site located in northern Alberta. The project is led by Shell Canada, one of the nation’s largest oil production companies.  The proposed plan is to increase oil production by 100,000 barrels per day, boosting total production to 300,000 barrels per day.

The Oilsands (or tar sands) are major deposits of petroleum. The tar is a mixture of water, sand, clay, and petroleum. As worldwide demand for oil has been rapidly increasing, the extraction of fossil fuel from tar sand reserves has become of great interest to consumers, even though the extraction process is incredibly inefficient. The Jackpine Oilsands are a part of these reserves, and are some of the biggest reservoirs of crude oil in Canada.

The Jackpine expansion has raised serious concerns among the neighbouring Aboriginal communities. The First Nations in this area are questioning whether the expansion will have a negative impact on the surrounding wildlife habitats and the health of their members. Shell’s previous expansion has already caused substantial damage to the nearby wildlife and has had significant health effects on First Nations people living in the proximate areas.

Many environmental experts posit that contaminants from these mines flow into the river, directly affecting the Native communities who live downstream. Numerous news sources have noted Environment Canada’s recent findings that the tar sands are poisoning the fish in the bodies of water downstream from the tar sands, including Lake Athabasca, Athabasca Delta, and the Athabasca River. Because fish is an essential component of the diet for the First Nations around the river, the high prevalence of diseased fish poses a serious problem.

A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by a group at the University of Alberta in 2010 revealed the prevalence of carcinogens in areas around and downstream from the tar sands. The pollutants found in the snow and waterways included mercury, lead, and thallium – all of which have the potential to raise serious health concerns.

Further reports with regards to environmental and health concerns have found higher instances of cancers in the communities surrounding the Athabasca River.  One of the main groups in this area is the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), who have been very active in voicing their concerns in recent month.  In a statement earlier this year, Chief Allan Adam, a representative of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said, “We live a very traditional life; we live off the land and the water. We have been told again and again that contaminants are naturally occurring, yet in the last 40 years we have seen the health of our community decline due to cancers and illness that we didn’t see before.”

Though these health and environmental concerns pose a great problem, there is the deeper, more systemic issue: First Nations individuals are not being given the proper opportunity to voice their concerns. As Shell began its expansion, First Nations groups in the surrounding areas began to protest. At the most recent hearing regarding the expansion in October, the ACFN was denied the ability to challenge Shell’s plans. Despite claims that the ACFN application had not been properly submitted, the review panel had failed to completely disclose all information for the application requirements. Shell argues that because the oil industry creates employment opportunities for individuals, the interests of First Nations people have been taken into account.  However, for the ACFN, the potential to cause sickness in their citizens trumps the need for jobs.

Although the tar sands are not located explicitly on First Nations territory, the mining expansion has caused major negative changes in the lives of those individuals living in the surrounding areas. Given the environmental and health-related damage previous expansions have caused, it is right to be wary of the immense project that is about to be underway. Adding to the growing deposits of carcinogens may likely result in disaster for the First Nations communities around the oil sands in the future.  The fate of these people was decided without sufficient opportunities for them to have their voices heard.

All across Canada, Aboriginal individuals face a myriad of issues, and many of these are a result of insensitivity towards their lands and ways of life. The tar sands are no exception.