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In Northern Alberta, Canada, sit the Athabasca tar sands—the world’s largest known reservoir of crude bitumen, and a major driver of Canada’s economy. The vast majority of Canadian oil production comes from the extraction and processing of the crude bitumen found in the tar sands. But while Canada prospers off the tar sands industry, Indigenous communities downstream are in the grips of its toxic impact. It is well documented that the people of Fort Chipewyan, in northern Alberta, have been struck by disproportionately high rates of cancer, and their proximity to the tar sands has long been the suspected dominant factor contributing to their sickness. 

In a new feature documentary, Killer Water, award-winning journalist Brandi Morin and award-winning filmmaker/director Geordie Day delve deep into the heart of the environmental crisis plaguing the Alberta oil sands, uncovering the hidden truths that have long been ignored. The film exposes the detrimental impact of toxic tailings ponds leakage on the delicate ecosystems, water sources, and human life in and around Fort Chipewyan. Through stunning visuals and compelling narratives, Morin and Day take viewers on a journey that highlights the injustices faced by the Indigenous community living in the shadow of this industrial development.

Killer Water was produced in partnership with The Real News Network, IndigiNews, and Ricochet Media.

Pre-Production: Brandi Morin, Geordie Day, Ethan Cox, Andrea Houston, Cara McKenna, Eden Fineday, Maximillian Alvarez, Kayla Rivara

Studio Production: Geordie Day

Post-Production: Brandi Morin, Geordie Day, Ethan Cox, Andrea Houston, Cara McKenna, Eden Fineday, Maximillian Alvarez, Kayla Rivara


Brandi Morin:  This is a stretch of Lake Athabasca, in northern Alberta, Canada. Jason Castor is going as fast as he can, but the waters here are shallow, too shallow. If he slows down, his boat could get stuck in the mud, or even flip over. The water here is low due to industries drawing out water like the WAC Bennett Dam in British Columbia. The other culprits are climate change and the relentless industrial mining of the Alberta tar sands.

The Peace-Athabasca Delta is the second largest freshwater delta in the world. And under the delta is the world’s largest known reservoir of crude bitumen. A black, viscus, semi-solid form of petroleum, [bitumen] is the main component of Canadian oil production, growing from 48% of total production in 2008 to 73% in 2021 according to the Canada Energy Regulator. In 2021, crude bitumen production totaled about 3.3 million barrels per day, and in 2020, it was worth $42.7 billion in sales value.

But while Canada prospers off the oil sands industry, Indigenous communities downstream are in the grips of its toxic impact.

Jason Castor:  On the riverways, there’s this slurry of foam that looks like oil, or some kind of chemical in there. And they said it’s supposed to be safe to drink. So, I don’t know, would you feed your family this? I look at this stuff and most of the time, I find this substance in it, mixed with the foam itself. And once it dries, it doesn’t come off. You pressure wash it, it won’t come off.

Back in the day, elders used to take water, a cup in their boat, and they used to drink it. Nowadays, I wouldn’t want to drink this.

Brandi Morin:  Jason is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, ACFN for short, located in Fort Chipewyan. He’s been a traditional hunter, trapper, and fisherman for nearly 20 years. Over that time, he has documented strange changes in the water, the land, and even in the animals.

Jason Pastor:  And they say that it’s natural. Well, I know that that’s not natural, because I’ve been on the river my whole life.

Brandi Morin:  Jason worked as a heavy equipment operator for a major oil extraction company in the oil sands for several years. But over time, he says, being that close to the site of extraction gave him reasons to be unnerved.

Jason Pastor:  I was working out on site, and then, there’s so much things going on on site. There’s oil trucks moving around, and all the spills, and there’s always the smell of bitumen. I just felt sick to my stomach when I went to work [inaudible]. And in my mind, what am I doing to my land, or what I’m doing to our water?

Brandi Morin:  Jason was raised in the foster care system, away from Fort Chipewyan, after both of his parents died while ice fishing on Lake Athabasca when he was young. Then, nearly 20 years ago, Jason moved his wife and children back to Fort Chipewyan, and did the hard work of learning a traditional lifestyle, the lifestyle his ancestors created over countless generations. But those traditions are now at risk.

When you were a kid, did you swim in the lake?

Jason Pastor:  Yeah.

Brandi Morin:  And now…?

Jason Pastor:  Now I don’t go in the water. I just don’t.

Brandi Morin:  What about your kids? Do you tell them not to?

Jason Pastor:  I don’t take them on the lake over there. I take them elsewhere. I tell them, ‘You don’t go swimming at the dock, you don’t go swimming at the beach park, you don’t go swimming anywhere around here. You want to go, we go to Inland Lake, or I’ll take you way up the lake to the beaches.’

Brandi Morin:  That life-giving, life-sustaining river is now a little more than a transportation route. When he travels the river to pick up supplies or visit friends in Fort McMurray, Jason doesn’t take his hunting or fishing equipment anymore.

Jason Pastor:  From this area, I usually hunt for another… about 40 minutes, and I won’t go any further. That’s my area of hunting. Even though my reserve is still up here, ACFN Reserve, I choose not to go hunting in that area because the oil plants are getting closer. When we get so close to the oil and gas, we have animals, they’ll be just walking right along the bank. And it seems like they just know that we’re not going to hunt them, because we already passed our buffer zone and put our guns away, and we decided we’re not hunting in that area because there’s too much contaminants. They know, because they know we’re not going to hunt them.

Brandi Morin:  Jason and other local residents have suspected pollution from the oil sands has been affecting them for years. Their fears aren’t unfounded. It is well documented that the people of Fort Chipewyan have been struck by disproportionately high rates of cancer, and their proximity to the tar sands has long been the suspected dominant factor contributing to their sickness. And a recent tailings pond spill reiterated their concerns.

In February, Indigenous communities downstream from Imperial Oil’s Kearl Mine, about 75 kilometers upstream of Fort Chipewyan, learned of a massive spill of 5.3 million liters, or 1.4 million gallons, from the mine’s tailing area. Oil sands tailings are where the mining companies store the byproducts of the oil sands mining and extraction process, including water, sand, clay, residual bitumen, and various chemicals.

Imperial Oil’s Kearl Mine spill was one of the largest releases of toxic tailings in Alberta’s history. However, Fort Chipewyan’s leadership was only made aware of the toxic spill through an environmental protection order, issued by the Alberta Energy Regulator, that called on the company to immediately contain and remediate the spill on Feb. 6. Then, in March, the Canadian press obtained a document that showed the province stalled the initiation of an emergency response for a month.

Meanwhile, Indigenous leaders found out that another tailings pond at the same Kearl Mine site had been leaking for at least nine months prior to the major incident in February.

Soon after the incident, Environment and Climate Change Canada launched a formal investigation into potential violations of the Fisheries Act by Imperial Oil.

Speaker 1:  …An official investigation into the Imperial Oil Kearl Facility.

Chief Allan Adam:  For some reason, it has become my job to come to this place in order to remind this government and its duties and its responsibilities. Your responsibility for properly regulating massive industry projects that potentially threaten the health and safety of Fort Chipewyan and other downstream communities. For 10 months, this leak went unreported, despite the Alberta Regulator and the oil sands operators being fully aware of what was going on.

Brandi Morin:  But the nightmare didn’t end there. Just one month after the Kearl Mine spill, Suncor reported 6 million liters of tailings water that exceeded sediment guidelines were released into the Athabasca River from its Fort Hills oil sands mine. Imperial Oil maintains its spill did not affect nearby waterways or wildlife.

Brad Corson:  Monitoring continues to show there have been no impacts to local drinking water sources, and there is no indication of impact to wildlife.

Brandi Morin:  But the AAR’s own tests indicated the presence of industrial wastewater in a fish-bearing waterbody near the mine, and subsequent testing detected F2 hydrocarbons at levels exceeding the surface water quality guidelines for the protection of freshwater aquatic life. Still, the AER claimed in April there was no indication of a change in drinking water, and no adverse impacts to fish or wildlife had been observed.

Laurie Pushor:  …We have had no test results that suggest any of those compounds have left Waterbody Three.

Brandi Morin:  Chief Adam doesn’t buy that, and he’s not alone.

Francis Scarpaleggia:  The lake, which feeds into a tributary of the Firebag River, also contains naphthenic acids, which are formed from the breakdown of petrochemicals, et cetera.

Heather McPherson:  You are finding toxins outside of the Kearl site, there is an impacted area, and you are continuing to allow Imperial Oil to put tailings into that system.

Brandi Morin:  Chief Adam says his band is preparing a lawsuit against the company in the provincial and federal governments.

Chief Allan Adam:  Regardless of what government forms, or what government’s in place, when your back is up against a circle of a wall, try to find the curve, and I’ll put you there. But right now, that’s where they’re at, and there’s nowhere for them to go.

From ACFN’s point of view, how the justice scale goes, we will find out, because that’s where we’re going. And this is going to court.

Brandi Morin:  Is there a lawsuit launched, or —

Chief Allan Adam:  It’s going to happen, yeah. And it’s not going to look good for anybody, and it’s not going to look good for Canada, and it’s not going to look good for Alberta. But Alberta will fight. But Canada will buckle. And we can’t allow our water to be tainted.

Brandi Morin:  Chief Adam has been fighting this fight for decades. He’s been ACFN’s elected chief for almost 16 consecutive years, and he became internationally recognized for speaking out about the adverse impacts of the oil sands.

Chief Allan Adam:  Climate change has affected our people in more ways than one, with the depletion of our water, the drying up of our ecosystem in regards to one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world.

Brandi Morin:  Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Neil Young, Jane Fonda, James Cameron, Desmond Tutu, and Greta Thunberg have visited Fort Chipewyan to help amplify the concerns.

Greta Thunberg:  Yeah, we continue the struggle, and yeah, we won’t give up.

Chief Allan Adam:  And neither will we.

Brandi Morin:  Then, in 2018, chief Adam announced he wanted to either buy a stake in Canada’s federally-owned Trans Mountain pipeline, or partner to build another future line.

Chief Allan Adam:  We want to be owners of a pipeline. We think that the pipeline is the most critical component to the oil and gas sector, especially from this region, and if Fort McMurray and Alberta wants to survive, the Athabasca Tribal Council has to be alongside both Alberta and Canada to make it run.

Brandi Morin:  He was labeled a sellout by some people, who claimed he abandoned the cause. But Adam said he couldn’t stop the oil industry, and he was tired of fighting against it, so he switched tactics to ensure his community at least receives long-overdue financial compensation.

Chief Allan Adam:  The sad scenario is that I would have loved to fight, and I still love to fight today, but there has to be a time when you have to draw the line.

Brandi Morin:  Then in 2020, Chief Adam again made international headlines when he was brutally arrested and beaten by RCMP officers in Fort McMurray for an expired license plate. Several months later, charges of resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer were dropped against him, following public backlash when footage of the incident was released [muffled shouting].

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:  We have all now seen the shocking video of Chief Adam’s arrest, and we must get to the bottom of this.

Chief Allan Adam:  If I had my way, in five years, the RCMP should be gone from all Native reserves across the country.

Brandi Morin:  Amidst all this, the chief never gave up caring about what happens to his homelands.

Chief Allan Adam:  Regardless of what and who we say we are, we have to work together as a community to stand as one, and that’s the only way we’ll be able to survive here in this community. How you say it, [speaking Dene]?

[Speaking Dene] means, I love you. I love you. That’s what that means. [Speaking Dene], I love you with all my heart, I guess the old timers would say, back in the day.

They could be giants and walk over us and everything, but you take out their knees, they will fall. Because our treaty trumps everything. We have legal rights, we have legal position, we have legal title, and we never, ever surrendered anything.

Brandi Morin:  What about Premier Smith? Have you ever had any convos with her? Because from what I understand, she was downplaying the seriousness of these spills, and the impacts, and she’s very, very pro-industry.

Premier Danielle Smith:  Nobody wants to feel like they have potentially been drinking water that has been exposed, and I’m pleased to report that none of this spill got into the tributaries.

Chief Allan Adam:  She hasn’t answered my text message that I sent to her when she was running for the Premier’s office and everything, and until today, she hasn’t answered my text. But I know she’s got it, because I have her cell number that goes right to the Premier’s office.

Brandi Morin:  What did you say in the text?

Chief Allan Adam:  I just told her straight out, ‘You want to continue this to go on? Well, then, give us 10% of all revenue sharing within Treaty Eight territory. That’s within a fair reason, and you don’t even have to back pay us. Just pay us up today.’ When times like this are happening, where homes are being destroyed by wildfire and everything and stuff like that because of climate change of development and everything. I raised the alarm years ago when I said that one day we’ll become environmental refugees. Where are we now?

Brandi Morin:  Chief Adam is growing frustrated with the encroaching threats to his community, threats that he believes are linked to industrial development. Like a wildfire that forced the entire community of Fort Chipewyan to be evacuated in May.

Premier Danielle Smith:  The fire danger level remains extreme in the North.

Speaker 8:  Smoke is seen billowing over the horizon as an out-of-control wildfire inches closer to the community. Residents of Fort Chipewyan forced to evacuate.

Speaker 9:  There are only two ways out of Fort Chipewyan: the first by plane. The Canadian Armed forces provided a Hercules aircraft and a convoy of flights took more than 500 people to nearby Fort McMurray. The second way out, by boat. Volunteers shuttled residents late into the night to hotel rooms once they got to safety.

Chief Allan Adam:  I’m Chief Allan Adam, and it’s 4:34. This is the last of the evacuees, and as you see in the background, we got the fire burning. We’re going to stay behind, and we’re going to help protect the community in ways that we can. Don’t worry. Don’t worry about anything. We got this. You guys take care.

Brandi Morin:  The CEO of Imperial Oil apologized for the toxic spills to Canadian lawmakers in Ottawa last April.

Brad Corson:  I am deeply apologetic for what has happened at Kearl. We are committed to correcting this situation and ensuring it does not happen again.

Brandi Morin:  The president of the AER also issued an apology.

Laurie Pushor:  It is clear that neither Imperial nor the AER met community expectations to ensure they’re fully aware of what is and what was happening, and for that, I am truly sorry.

Brandi Morin:  [Drum beating] But the damage is done, and Chief Adam has lost trust in all stakeholders involved.

Chief Allan Adam:  When you look at your grandchildren and everything, and you say, ‘Is that my legacy that’s going to continue to happen?’ And yet, we’re watching our own grandchildren, our own kids, pass away with diseases of cancer and everything, and we can’t do nothing.

15 years ago and everything, when we first brought it out to the public about what was going on here, just because nobody talks about it? It’s still going on, it’s still happening. People are still being diagnosed with cancer, but we live it because it’s our normal.

Brandi Morin:  Back in April, when Chief Adam testified in Ottawa, he learned his father-in-law had been diagnosed with liver cancer.

Chief Allan Adam:  My father-in-law today is going to get his results back. Because they found a big growth in his liver last week, of cancer. And I’m supposed to be with my wife, to be with her, to comfort her when she hears this news. But I’m here giving testimony to all of everybody across Canada about the issue, about what’s going on in our community.

Brandi Morin:  I watched when you were testifying to the Environmental Committee in Ottawa, you were talking about the cancers, and you said, nobody ever brings this up anymore. And you said, my own father-in-law is being tested.

Chief Allan Adam:  Well, we got the results back then. But yesterday, because my wife don’t fly, and the water being low—because BC Hydro Site C is filling up right now and reducing our water level—we have a hard time traveling. My wife has to make a decision now, because yesterday, the doctor told us, ‘Expect one month to one year.’

Brandi Morin:  Chief Adam is familiar with the pain of losing loved ones, including his own father, to cancer.

Chief Allan Adam:  I went through that moment, and my dad went through this process. I had to make a decision as a Chief back then. What do I do? Do I run the Nation, or do I step aside? I stepped aside for six months and spent time with my dad.

Everything inside, everything that’s here, will affect people, regardless of what. And my father-in-law lived off the land all his life. He still goes out in the bush today. He’s 88 years old. He just came back yesterday from the bush. Can’t stop him. His love for the land is who he is. And like I said, it all connects together, everything connects. The water, the land, and the people.

[Drumming and singing]

Water’s everything, water’s life. It gives life to everything that we thrive on, everything that we believe the Creator gave to us.

When we were young, when we were growing up, when my mother and dad took us out in the land, we didn’t have a deep freeze, but our deep freeze was right here, and it was fresh. Within the year, I probably take, probably about, maybe four fish. And yet, fish is the healthiest thing that you could eat.

Brandi Morin:  How has your community, the people here, how have they responded to the news of the tailing spills? Are they scared?

Chief Allan Adam:  Yeah, we’re scared. Well, I’ll say that for a fact.

Brandi Morin:  How do you [crosstalk]?

Chief Allan Adam:  My name is Allan Adam. I’m the chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. When it comes to the water issue, I am very scared, because it has never been resolved, and it has never been talked about ever since we raised the issue. But it’s still there. The innocent killer. Looks so beautiful, but yet, it’s a killer.

Well, good afternoon, everyone. I just want to pass on a message. My wife lost her father today.

Brandi Morin:  Dr. John O’Connor, who worked as a physician in Fort Chipewyan for nearly 16 years, alerted officials years ago about the disproportionately high rates of both rare and common cancers among community members.

Dr. John O’Connor:  Within the first couple of years, it was sort of plain to me that this community of 1,200 people, had a lot of illness. And then, as I got to know the community more, and trust was established, it dawned on me. It was quite a shock.

Cancer and autoimmune diseases, of a type and number that I really wasn’t seeing in my large practice in Fort McMurray. They hunt, they trapped, and gathered. They were very well established, very self-contained and contented. This made it all the more sort of alarming for me.

As the years went by, it dawned on me that this was probably preconceived. I thought this was something that was already in the vocabulary, in their lexicon, and I just happened to touch a raw nerve with them, because there was no undue alarm. The facts were there for all to see, documented. And not just by me, by the Provincial Health Authority. They were obviously hiding something. They were protecting Big Oil, Big Fossil.

Brandi Morin:  Yeah. When you learned of this big leak that Imperial Oil had covered up for nine months, and then this huge leak that it had earlier this year, and then Suncor a month later, what did you think when you learned that?

Dr. John O’Connor:  My first thought when I heard about these leaks that weren’t reported or were covered up was, ‘Who’d be surprised at this?’ It set me thinking and looking back to the late ’90s. Back then, they had public hearings. And at one of them, Suncor admitted that their oldest pond had been leaking at an alarming rate, for years, directly into the water table.

There are carcinogenic chemicals in these tailings ponds that, individually, are Class One carcinogens for humans and animals. There are chemicals science is unsure of the impact of when they’re mixed, the soup that’s created by these tailings ponds. There’s also, even more alarming, endocrine disruptors that are leaching directly into the environment, into the water, that are impacting fish. And, of course, fish [are] a staple diet in Fort Chip. And, of course, these fish are being caught with missing parts and growths and stuff.

Brandi Morin:  What do you think about children being diagnosed with cancer? You hear of adults and things being diagnosed, but when it’s kids, it’s like, wow.

Dr. John O’Connor:  Cancer in children in a setting like that, Brandi, represents the canary in the mine. The other health issues that are in Fort Chip are red flags. Children getting cancer should be a siren. It should be a four-alarm fire siren. And I don’t hear any concern being expressed by anyone in a position of authority, either federally or provincially.

Brandi Morin:  Do you think that that is to protect the interests of industry?

Dr. John O’Connor:  I think industry is untouchable. It owns this province, controls everything.

Calvin Waquan:  I see this lake as something that teaches me a lot of lessons. It’s my fridge, it’s my classroom, it’s my history book. It’s my solitude.

Brandi Morin:  Mikisew Cree member Calvin Waquan utilizes Lake Athabasca and its river systems on a regular basis. Calvin moved home to Fort Chipewyan after his father was murdered in Edmonton in 2014, because he wanted to reconnect with his ancestral homeland.

Calvin Waquan:  You see the beauty of our community, but that all comes with a cost. And it all comes with the thought of being sick one day.

Brandi Morin:  And even kids are getting cancer?

Calvin Waquan:  Oh yeah, for sure. My son had two friends who recently had cancer, and the same age, 10 years old.

Brandi Morin:  From here?

Calvin Waquan:  From here, yeah, and people recently dying of cancers. And that scares me. It scares my wife.

Brandi Morin:  The rates are incredibly high because of how small this community is.

Calvin Waquan:  It is. It’s astronomical. When someone like Dr. O’Connor or somebody blows the whistle, they get threatened to take their job away, or to silence them because of the almighty dollar, but where’s our share? Where’s the royalties? Where’s something that’s going to create sustainability, something that’s going to create sovereignty for our people?

My wife wanted to move away from here, and me not wanting to be here anymore, but I want to be here with my people and with my granny, and beside my father that I buried nine and a half years ago. Yeah, I could see him out my backyard in my window.

But it’s getting to a point where I don’t know if I want to stick around because young guys like me are dying from cancers, and older people are passing away, and it’s sad to see. And is it the meat? Is it the fish? Is it the air? Is it the plants? It’s everything. It’s the medicines. It’s everything—everything that we trusted in before we are guessing at now. When I’m burying my papa and my uncle and cousins and seeing other people die from rare cancers, bile duct cancers, you can’t tell me there’s something not wrong here.

Brandi Morin:  Does it bother you when you’re out here and you’re trying to enjoy that, and you’re thinking, well, it’s being poisoned?

Calvin Waquan:  Yeah, it gets me sometimes, I guess, when I’m seeing the slicks in different bays and coves. And it shouldn’t be on our minds to second guess if we’re going to eat the fish out of the water.

Brandi Morin:  After he learned of the Kearl tailing spill, Calvin showed up to a town hall held by Imperial Oil holding a water bottle tainted with motor oil and presented it to Jamie Long, Imperial Oil’s vice president of mining.

Calvin Waquan:  Now my kids that are in the back have to live with this for the next generation to come. You know what? I was going to pour this all over the projector so it would leak down the screen. That screen and that lens that I was going to pour the oil on? That fits our traditional way of life, and how you’ve tarnished it. No thanks [applause].

I was pretty riled up, as you can see. And I walked in there pretty calm, and I just told them how I felt, and I guess how my ancestors have been trying to tell people from the beginning. Just like my granny and my kôkom [grandma], Mary Rose said, enough is enough, and I just had enough. I saw my little girl there, my boy. Once industry is affecting the serenity of that and the beauty of this water and these lands, I’m going to stand up and be a warrior for my people today and tomorrow, and for every day to come.

Brandi Morin:  It’s just heartbreaking, though, at the same time.

Calvin Waquan:  Yup.

Brandi Morin:  My God, this is your traditional land. Chief Adam has told me more than once that you’ll be climate refugees.

Calvin Waquan:  Yeah, we will. Yeah. We’re going to lose the way that our ancestors left for us. And they meant for us to walk on the land and the water farther than they did, but not to this extent, to move away from home.

Brandi Morin:  Tân’si [hello]. Hi, Ian.

Ian Peace:  Tân’si [hello].

Brandi Morin:  Ian Peace, an environmental scientist who lived and worked in northern Alberta, including Fort Chipewyan for several years, wrote a thesis about leaking tailings in the oil sands in 2019.

Ian Peace:  We found results from the experiment that we did that would suggest there was process-affected water making its way from the tails impoundment area down to the river. It’s pretty widely agreed that naphthenic acids are the main toxicant of concern. And I did a little bit of number crunching on this, and between Suncor and Syncrude, there is at least 200,000 kilograms per day of naphthenic acids being discharged to tailing ponds. And that is a substance that’s been shown to kill fish in concentrations as low as 20 milligrams per liter.

So here goes all those tailings into the tailings pond, and most of the water drained out the bottom, leaving behind the sludge accumulation. The main contaminant is naphthenic acids, the one that everybody agrees is the biggest concern. It’s expressing to the river in almost the same amounts that are already dissolved into the tailings water.

Brandi Morin:  Do you think that the Alberta government and industry, do you think that they downplay the impacts, specifically, I guess, on the river, and with these leaking tailings?

Ian Peace:  Yeah. Yeah, I think that that’s very clear. You can see that it’s downplayed tactically and strategically. There’s no doubt. They don’t look for a number of compounds, and they don’t look in the areas where they might find it. And it’s been an effective strategy.

Brandi Morin:  There’s a big void when it comes to the knowledge of the combination of the chemicals in tailings, and how those chemicals affect human health.

Mandy Olsgard:  Hello?

Brandi Morin:  Tân’si [hello], Mandy, this is Brandi. How are you?

Mandy Olsgard:  Hi, I am good. Just got a little delayed on my drive, so sorry. I’m going to be in my car.

Brandi Morin:  No, it’s no problem.

Mandy Olsgard is an environmental toxicologist. She studies how chemicals affect people and the environment. She’s worked to assess water contamination for the AER and various First Nation communities throughout her career, including Fort Chipewyan.

Mandy Olsgard:  When they do an assessment so that they can approve an oil sands mine, they assess the risks to human health. There is then no regulatory body that is responsible for community or human health once that project is approved. We only manage human health through the environment —

Brandi Morin:  Wow.

Mandy Olsgard:  …And environmental quality monitoring. So there’s this gap between what we predicted as a risk to human or Indigenous community health, and then how we monitor that during the life of a project. So it’s not shocking that communities are bringing these concerns forward, whether it’s odors from air emissions, deposition of dust, changes to wildlife and plants.

Brandi Morin:  The issue at hand is proving whether the higher rates of cancer are linked to the oil sands. The provincial and federal governments have said multiple water tests they conducted found no evidence of contamination of waterways near the Kearl mine.

Laurie Pushor:  There has been no evidence presented that this reached the waterway.

Brandi Morin:  But the ACFN, the Mikisew Cree, and Meti governments in Fort Chipewyan don’t trust those findings. So they’ve been conducting their own tests at their water treatment plant. Yet, Mandy said those standard water inspections are inadequate because tests for certain chemicals are not conducted.

Mandy Olsgard:  But we’ve never really linked that to how it changed human health and the condition of human health. There’s studies that have shown chemical concentrations are elevated. So that’s why when people come at anyone and say, ‘Oh, but we’re cleaning up the world’s largest oil spill,’ that’s all bunk.

So they’re not. They process the oil sands, and they release different types of chemicals, different forms of those chemicals, and sometimes novel chemicals. They have introduced polyacrylamide and acrylamide into the environment there as use for flocculants in tailings ponds, for things that make the tailings come together and sink to the bottom to clarify the water cap.

Brandi Morin:  Wow.

Mandy Olsgard:  So there’s novel chemicals, there’s increased concentrations. They change the oxidation state of metals — and that’s important, because how bioavailable, how easily a human can absorb something, depends on the oxidation state. So when people are saying, ‘This was natural,’ no, it’s not.

Brandi Morin:  Tar does naturally exist along the Athabasca’s rivers, banks, and tributaries. Its black goo seeping from the shores, has been recorded by local Indigenous tribes for millennia, and as early as the 1700s by settler explorers. But the naturally-occurring tar isn’t what these issues are about.

Mandy Olsgard:  Development changed it fundamentally, and that’s what we need to focus on. Did it change it to the point enough that it’s affected human health? Those increased rates of cancer, mental health? That’s all in there. But I’ve never seen Alberta Health or the provincial government do anything for communities based on that report, or try and figure out why.

Brandi Morin:  I don’t even trust them. Look at what the AER has done, and…

Mandy Olsgard:  I know. I worked there. I don’t anymore. I get it.

Margo Vermillion:  [Singing].

Brandi Morin:  Marco Vermilion is a Dene Cree elder who grew up in Fort Chipewyan. She was shattered to learn of the tailing spills.

Margo Vermillion:  When I heard, actually, about the oil spill, my heart was so sore. When I was little, I used to come down to the waters with pails of water to bring home to drink. It was clean water back then. Everything was so much more healthier.

Today, you look at our water, and it’s sad. You can feel the sadness from them. You can feel that they’re crying for… Sorry, I just get so emotional, because I really believe that our waters are crying for us to help them, like everything else. Everything else that’s connected to the waters, it’s our plants and our trees and our insects. They’re also crying.

I went down to the lake, and as I was walking down the shore, what a beautiful eagle feather that I had found, on my birthday—I was gifted with a feather. Then I thought, well, I’m just going to walk over the hill, so I walked over the hill. Brandi, you wouldn’t believe… You could almost feel that the trees and the plants were in mourning. They were mourning because of the burnt, them being burnt, right?

And I sang for them. I sang, because I really felt their sadness too. So I felt their sadness of the destruction that’s happening to our earth. I think that, you know what? Again, it’s men, it’s human beings that are making all of this destruction happen.

[Drumming and singing] I don’t have no faith whatsoever in industry. How can we in the community have faith in them? They’ve broken promises, their words mean nothing. If they came and they decided to live here in the community and to be amongst us, to experience what it is that we experience, maybe I’ll listen to them.

Brandi Morin:  Exactly. But they were already covering up that spill for months or more before. They didn’t even tell you.

Margo Vermillion:  Yeah, and they didn’t say a word to the community. I don’t know anymore. I mean, you know what? When they investigate their own self like that, nothing really happens. We don’t need scientists to tell us. We have the proof here. We have our elders that talk about the changes that they see. That’s our scientists. But now, today, nowadays, if you don’t have your papers in being a scientist, nothing else is true, right?

Brandi Morin:  Meanwhile, Chief Adam isn’t convinced Imperial Oil has fully contained the Kearl mine leak, and the AER absolved itself of any wrongdoing when it released its report of its internal investigation into the spills in late September. Now, Chief Adam is determined to keep the pressure on industry, the AER, and governments to ensure they rectify their shortfalls.

Chief Allan Adam:  This is a wakeup call for Canada, and this is a wakeup call for Alberta. And this is a downfall for the AER, because they failed to uphold the protection of this community. They created a big mess, and the big mess is going to be, one day, revealed in the courts, and this is where it’s all going to, regardless of… The Alberta government can’t continue to run the AER as its own, what you’d call the gunslinger of the West.

Brandi Morin:  But even the fact that the feds are even considering allowing them to release so-called “treated” tailings into the river, that is unacceptable, as well, you’ve said.

Chief Allan Adam:  It is unacceptable, and we’re not going to accept it. Turn the tap on and find out.

Brandi Morin:  Despite all this, the feds are actually considering adopting regulations for the release of so-called “treated oil sands mining wastewater” into the Athabasca River. The new regulations are expected to be finalized by 2025.

It’s so crazy, because they don’t even know how to deal with the tailings and stuff that they already have. They’re scrambling. ‘What do we do? How do we get rid of this?’ Now, they’re proposing to the government to let them release it, because they say it’s safe and treated now, into the river. They can’t even contain what they have.

It’s astonishing that in such a small, isolated community, pretty much everyone I’ve talked to here has a loved one that’s died from cancer.

Jason Pastor:  Our people don’t really die of old age no more, more of a cancer. People don’t die naturally as they used to. I can’t speak for everybody, but I know on my side of my family, I had about four or five people, my own personal loved ones, that passed away from some cancers, and that made me have mixed feelings about this area.

Brandi Morin:  Water, the life giver, the one necessity Jason and others here make sure to stock up on in bottled form when out on the territory.

Jason Pastor:  You see [inaudible], there’s a whole story I was told, you see, about water. When you’re out of supplies, you usually go home from the bush. If you go berry picking or you go in the bushes, usually, you run out of supplies, you go home. Nowadays, if you run out of water, you have no choice to go home.

Brandi Morin:  The AER declined an interview request, citing the ongoing investigation into the tailing spills. Imperial Oil did not respond to requests for an interview.

I’m Brandi Morin, reporting in the unceded territories of the Athabasca Chipewyan, Mikisew Cree, and Metis nations, for The Real News Network, IndigiNews, and Ricochet Media.

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Brandi Morin is an award-winning Cree/Iroquois/French journalist from Treaty 6 territory in Alberta. For the last 10 years Brandi has specialized in sharing Indigenous stories, some of which helped spark change and reconciliation in Canada’s political, cultural and social landscapes. Her most notable work has appeared in publications and on networks including National Geographic, Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, CANADALAND, VICE, ELLE Canada, the Toronto Star, the New York Times, Huffpost, Indian Country Today Media Network, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News, and CBC Indigenous.

Brandi won a Human Rights Reporting award from the Canadian Association of Journalists in April of 2019 for her work with the CBC’s Beyond 94 project tracking the progress of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

Her debut memoir, Our Voice of Fire, is forthcoming with House of Anansi in 2022.

Geordie Day is a documentary filmmaker, and television producer/director. He is the founder and president of the production company, NightSchool Films. His films have played on television, demand services, and in theatres at festivals and screenings around the world. Geordie has produced, written and directed on factual programming for Cooking Channel, Animal Planet, Nat Geo, CBC, CTV, E!, MTV, CMT and other networks.