An Interview with Mike Mercredi, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations

An Interview with Mike Mercredi, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations

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Mike is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, an indigenous community located at Fort Chipewyan (or Fort Chip for short) in Alberta, Canada. European traders established an outpost here in 1821, and in subsequent years the tar sands industry has sunk its teeth into the land and the inhabitants.

How has the tar sands industry changed life in your community?

The explanation has to begin with the first European contact. In 1821 they set up a trading post and for a century we were employed as trappers, coming in from the surrounding land to trade furs for goods. The community has always been close to the land — trapping was not a part of the culture, however living off the land and with the land, that is our culture. Ever since contact with Europeans, we have had to adapt our way of living.

Then in 1922 industry started coming in. That year our chief sent a letter to the government asking them to designate land to us as traditional lands, but they didn’t reply for some 16-17 years. However later that year, they passed the Mining Act.

Oil sands have changed the region since the early days of trapping. Growing up, I was taught to get an education up through 9th grade or to get a GED or even graduate high school and then get a job working in oil sands. They wanted to recruit us right out of high school. These days they have programs in the high schools where they allow the students to go work on site for the oil sands companies, while they’re still in school. These kids get hooked on the taste of the oil sands money before they are even 18. First they were weaning people from living off the land to become trappers and now they’re grabbing them right out of school to make them join the industry. It’s all anyone in the community wants to do, because it’s all they’re taught; all they’re told is that this is the way of the world, that they need to be a part of the economy.

I was one of those people; I worked at the tar sands for 10 years, sometimes driving the 400 ton trucks. When I came back to Fort Chip, some people were aware of what was going on, but the majority of people lean on the industry, figuring they can’t do anything else, that it’s hopeless and they all have to work for the industry. People have gone and worked for them and then left, having seen what the industry is doing to the land and the people, but they end up going back because they have families to feed and need a job.

Scientific studies have come to light, proving the link between the tar sands industry and rare cancers. People are now wondering, what is going on here? Now we know which companies are emitting toxins into the air and water and making people sick.

The Alberta government and industry knew about this all along. They knew about the effects it would have on health, the damage it would do to the land, the environmentally devastating effects on people upstream. So they changed the ways they wrote their Environmental Impact Assessments so they could pass legislation to allow for mining of tar sands. As a new generation of government workers came in they believed the already existing EIAs and they could lean on that. Then the companies come in and deny that they are causing the problems, labeling it as hype and trying to skew the statistics. But there are people in the community who now have diabetes even though they eat traditional foods cultivated from the land. But the traditional diet is connected to the water — the fish that live in the water, the moose that drink from it — and that’s what’s making them sick. All the sustenance is coming from the water that’s released from the tar sands.

Some of our elders talk about the spills in the 60s and 70s, before the environmental acts of 1984 put in place some protections — these companies had been running for almost 20 years before that, so you can imagine the number of spills and the pollution in the water. And even today, every year when the snow melts, it’s the equivalent of an oil spill. We can measure the toxins in the snow (this is stuff that comes out of the stacks and settles on the snow), and based on the amount of the snow melt, you can calculate how much run-off goes back into the tributaries and aquifers. This is from Syncrude, Suncor, Albian, and CNRL’s. This is besides the oil spills they report on.

Companies have to release what chemicals are coming from their stacks and so you can track what’s coming out of each of the stacks and point a finger at the companies responsible. A report that came out in December said that pollution is 50 times higher than what companies are reporting to the public. They knew from the beginning the effect it would have, but they changed the legislation to make it seem like the problems are very small. Alberta Environment cut funding for scientific studying and now all they do is monitor and report whether they’ve exceeded their levels — they might say the water quality is bad, but they never go to the company to say that there’s a problem. Several years ago, there were complaints of foul odors coming from the stacks and all they did was put something on the tops of the stacks to make the odor less repugnant, rather than stop putting out those chemicals. We have a whole country run by oil companies — doing whatever they can, anyway they can to keep the oil running, no matter what happens to the people.

What kind of community organizing is going on in Fort Chip?

There are a lot of people who have concerns about what they can do and say — many work for the oil sands industries, but the children are doing their own protesting and organizing against it. As for me, anytime I get a chance to talk about it I do. Last year I toured to communities in North America affected by industry and tar sands specifically telling them our story, what we’re going through, the rare cancers being found and the fight we’re waging against it. There are tons of organizations that support Ft Chip, that campaign on our behalf.

But every time it comes back to the government asking where our scientific proof is — well we have it now. What they’re going to do with it, we don’t know, because its just come to light in the past several months. Since the report came out, the companies have hired a bunch of lawyers, basically they’re getting ready to fight, because somewhere along the line, someone is going to come along and charge them with genocide — the killing of a people.

There is no hope with regulatory bodies, they don’t work; the measurements they use have all been broken. Every oil sand company out there has broken the regulatory agencies rules. A lot of the companies say they’re using the latest technology, but all they’re doing is finding quicker ways of getting the oil out of the ground. And along the lines, people are still paying the price, people are still dying. This last week we buried an elder here; he died from cancer. And yet they’re telling the rest of the world we’re fine.

They also try to guilt us by saying that they are putting people to work, and that if you shut it down we’re shutting down the economy. But as far as I say, let it happen, bring it on — I’d rather that than have people dying. If they don’t do anything about it now, in the long run we’re all going to pay the price. Fort Chip is where the stone hits the pond and it ripples out — what happens here you don’t want to happen to the rest of the world. Anyone living within a certain radius of the plant is going to get sick. They found evidence of the pollution on some of the plants floating in the Saskatchewan River.

We’re also dealing with possible uranium mining around the reserve and lake — Fort Chip will be surrounded. Sixty percent of our oil goes to the states, and 40 percent of that goes to the U.S. military — so not only are we going to be fueling their tank trucks, but if uranium comes to pass, we’ll be arming them [the U.S.]. All of this coming out of the back yard of Fort Chip.

What response have you gotten from other First Nations in Canada and tribes in the U.S.?

They all say fight against it and try to find ways of educating people. No company has offered anything beyond jobs to these communities, yet according to the treaties signed which agree to sharing the land and all its resources, we should be getting a share. Well, where’s our share? Why are First Nations still living in third world conditions in a first world country? If they followed the treaty we’d be just as rich as they are. The problem is, they [the Canadian government] made the leases privatized to sell them to multi-national corporations to come in and mine the oil sands here.

What one message would you like to send to the readers?

Boycott oil sands products, find out which companies use oil sands oil, which ones are selling and using the stuff. There are several companies that have upped the ante refusing to conduct commerce with the companies that use dirty tar sands. If the Obama administration wanted to go to a green economy, wanted to change how we do things, one of the things they can do is change where they get oil from, which is the oil sands. Americans should know that not only are the people of Fort Chip and Alberta, Canada, supplying them oil but also fueling the army tanks, but arming them too. If they’re against war, they won’t want this to happen.