Emma Pullman is a Vancouver-based researcher, writer and campaigner. She is a campaigner with for Leadnow.ca and campaigns consultant for SumOfUs. Emma will spend the next two weeks in Fort Chipewyan, Anzac, Fort McKay and Beaver Lake meeting with First Nations elders and local residents about the impact of the tar sands on their lands and communities. This series will recount her findings and reflections until her trip concludes when she joins Aboriginal communities from across Turtle Island in Fort McMurray for the Healing Walk against the tar sands on July 5-6. Read parts one and three on rabble.ca.
As I walk up Alice Rigney’s driveway in Fort Chipewyan, I pass a garden with vegetables growing, and a dog happily chewing on a bone in the shade. It’s already 7 p.m., yet the air is still hot and humid, the sun high in the sky.
Inside, Rigney has just finished carving a caribou shoulder. She graciously invites me in for dinner and shares her story. Her story helps me understand the tar sands mega project as part of a broader colonial project and what is at stake for her family, community and culture if this project continues unchecked.
“It was a wonderful life”
Alice Rigney was born on the shores of Lake Athabasca, delivered by her maternal grandmother and raised at a Dene village called Jackfish. She and most of her siblings were born and raised on the land in the delta across the lake from Fort Chipewyan.
Rigney remembers the contentment, family, and sharing that knit the community together.
“When there was a hunt and a kill, everybody shared. And it was just the way things were. You shared with your extended family, and it kept everybody going. It was a wonderful life.”
She grew up speaking her Dene language, but on her 5th birthday in 1956, she was sent to a residential school in Fort Chipewyan. “In the name of God, they stripped us of everything we had” she tells me. “The Mission tore us out of the arms of our parents. Not only me, all of my family, but half of this community. They took away our way of life, our language, our pride, to where we ended up being ashamed of our parents. And we had to rebuild from there.”
Rigney’s tone softens. She tells me that at twenty-one, she returned home to the land, and began to heal. She picked up from where she had left off when she was five years old.
Rigney considers herself one of the lucky ones: She got her language back. “I was strong enough to say, ‘I am a Dene woman’. It was was my grandmother who told me that. She said that if you speak your language, your elders will know you. And that to me was enough to start speaking my language.”
“There’s something wrong”
Rigney tells me that it was in the early 1970’s that she started to see the first major industrial tar sands projects. “I was thirteen years old when I went to Fort McMurray by boat…I remember we stopped at Suncor. And they were just clearing the land. The trees, the big white spruce towering 300 feet — they were cutting them down. If you had asked me then would I ever think it was going to be the way it is now, I would have said no.”
Rigney looks me in the eye and tells me, “But my dad could read the land. He could read the water, he could read the weather, he could read just by smelling and using his senses. He could smell the rain.”
“He said, ‘there’s something wrong’. The ducks aren’t coming to the river in the fall. We had these little black beetles that skimmed the water and that’s what the ducks come and eat. He said, ‘the bugs are gone.’ That was probably one of the first indications to me that something was happening. And we knew, we knew that the tar sands were starting up. We never thought it was going to be like this.”
“They took away our water”
Of the impacts from tar sands industry, she tells me, “The biggest impact is the water. We drank the water from the river. We dipped our cup in there, and we drank…Industry takes four barrels of water to make 1 barrel of oil. And when you have plants on the Athabasca, each taking their allocated water, of course it’s going to affect the water. And it’s our end. We’re on the receiving end. We’re at the bottom of the toilet bowl, physically.”
“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 jackfish. “It had a piece on the side,” she says, making 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.”
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 per cent 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.”
“So are they gonna leave it? Are they going to leave your garbage for us? Everything that has came up on Highway 63, all those oil plants — they’re just gonna leave them there, with a big hole in the ground, contaminated holding ponds, and we’re gonna be left with that, because they’re sure as hell not going to take it with them. And they’ll have made their billions, and billions and trillions of dollars.”
“What’s it going to be like when he’s 61?”
Rigney takes her one-month old great-grandson into her arms. As she kisses his cheek and speaks a few words in Dene to him. She says,
“It’s him I worry about. I’m 61. What’s it going to be like when he’s 61? It’s not going to be like this. I really worry about my memory, my way of life. It’s disappearing. The stories are disappearing. The way people think is disappearing.”
“The teachings from our grandparents and parents is that this is not ours. You don’t own the land. It’s for your kids, your grandchildren. And that’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to keep it so that it’s clean enough so that my grandchildren, and that little guy,” she says as she takes his hand, “go out there like I am. But I kind of doubt that. I don’t have faith in anything that industry says. I don’t have any faith in them at all.”
“When you know that the Premier and the federal government are after one thing and that’s the resource, the oil has to come out at any cost. And if we’re in the way, they’ll just move us out of the way. Do away with us.”
“This is our land. This is our home.” she tells me. “Now I’m becoming an elder, and I have to pass on what I know. That’s not mine to keep. It’s mine to share with everyone.”
This entry originally appeared in the Vancouver Observer.
Photos: Emma Pullman