Saturday, September 21, 2013

Caux gives Alberta delegate renewed heart and spirit to keep fighting negative environmental, health impacts

Arriving in Caux, I saw the conference program for “Just Governance”.  Reading the list of presenters I thought that perhaps I was at the wrong conference.  Believing that there is no coincidence in life, I kept my heart open to where my Creator was leading me. I was not in Caux by chance.  As I listened and took part in the conference, I had the chance to share our family and community’s experience of interaction with oil companies in our tiny community of Fort McKay First Nation, the heart of Alberta’s tar sands. 

People shared their own experience of overcoming obstacles in their steps to make the world a better place.  Obstacles like violence, corruption, environmental hardships and extreme poverty.  Those conversations challenged me to pick up my work for the betterment of our environment and people’s health.  Pick up where I had once given up.

We refer to Fort McKay First Nation as “Ground Zero” because we are the first people affected by the massive strip mines that tear apart our boreal forest.  The mines are so huge, they are visible from space.  Oil-soaked sand is mined and processed within a twenty minute drive from our community, in any direction.  The process of extracting oil from the sand involves using massive quantities of water from the Athabasca River that flows through our community.  In 2011, 370 million cubic metres of water were used in the process.1 It also involves the use of chemicals, like arsenic.  Once the oil is extracted, the remaining sand and acidic chemicals are stored in huge tailings ponds (lakes really).  They are holes in the earth lined with clay, with a berm on all sides.  Scientists do not understand the reaction of all these chemicals mixed together while exposed to heat, cold, light, dark etc.
In 2009, my family discovered a tailings pond, several kilometres from our community’s water intake on the Ells River.  In 2009, Canadian Natural Resources began producing their mine’s first oil.  It was their tailings pond we came across.  What was unusual was that this tailings pond had berms (raised banks) on only three sides.  One side was open to the bush, with fresh water flowing into the chemicals.  We could not tell where the creeks ended and the chemicals and oil began.  Tracks in the ground showed that animals had gone into the tailings, with no tracks coming out. 

What we discovered in researching the tailings was that public hearings into the project were held by our government in 2003.  No information on the tailings pond design was given during those hearings.  The project was approved by a joint review panel, made up of provincial and federal representatives in early spring of 2004.  It was approved without the tailings pond design being a part of the approval process.  In late spring 2004, the design of the tailings was accepted. 

The exposed side of the tailings was not a design shared with the Canadian public, let alone our community.  Fort McKay First Nation took its water only kilometres from the open side of the chemical tailings pond.  Our water intake and the lake of chemicals exposed to the bush were separated by muskeg.  Boreal forest is very wet and our land is made up of muskeg; porous vegetation that serves as a natural water filtration system.  How could the tailings not seep through this sponge-like terrain?

We got wet going into the tailings area in 2009.  The muskeg soaked us all on those trips.  We expected that as we grew up getting wet travelling in the muskeg.  But this time every person that got wet going into the tailings area got horrible sores on our skin.  Sores the doctor could not identify.  Today, most of the community has those sores.  Babies born in the last few years have skin and breathing problems.  We can’t drink the water.  We can’t bathe in it.  Showers are to be kept to a minimum. 

Challenging corruption, environmental destruction and standing up for Mother Earth and her children has been a tough fight.  My family faced threats and very personal attacks because of our efforts to seek truth.  I was worn out when I went to Caux.  I was discouraged at the thought of how aboriginal people had the power to have their voices heard through voting in municipal, provincial, federal and First Nations elections but chose not to. 

Hearing people in Caux consistently share stories of change engaged me again.  What can I do?  I can share our experience with others and help other communities learn from our mistakes as they begin interactions with oil.  Our community did not do baseline health studies to set a reference point for ongoing research into environmental and human health impacts.  How hard it is now to prove the impacts of the tar sands development! We should have pushed for monitoring of environmental impacts of the tar sands by local trained people.  Regulatory approval, monitoring and enforcement policies that include local indigenous people will ensure their voices are heard. 

Meeting and listening to Joseph Karanja share his experience of challenging corruption in Kenya’s election system moved me to tears.  People risked their lives to protect the democratic right to vote, while my people chose not to participate in that valuable, powerful right.  How could I help change that, I wondered?  In a moment of quiet reflection, a clear opportunity presented itself.  With the help of Tim Hall, a Canadian filmmaker and peacebuilding scholar I met at Caux, Joseph’s experience was recorded for the purpose of developing a short video to encourage Canadian aboriginal participation in voting. 

I have lots of ideas for change.  Caux helped me find new ways to fight for it.  I now know what I can do.  Be still, and quietly wait for my Creator to speak to my heart and open paths for change.  What can you do?  You can read up on the destruction of tar sands mining.  You can share our experience with others.
Marlene Orr, Fort McKay, Alberta