Government Commitments

Drinking Water Advisories

Athabasca Chief Allan Adam consulting with Ottawa on First Nations Clean Water Act

January 18, 2024

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) near Fort McMurray attended the consultation with Min. Patricia Hajdu on Bill C-61

Kearl Lake
A tailings pond at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake oilsands operation north of Fort McMurray on Feb. 25, 2023. Courtesy Nicholas Vardy, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation

First Peoples Law Report: Edmonton Journal – Water — and last year’s tailings fluid leaks from Imperial Oil’s Kearl oilsands mine — were top of mind when Indigenous leaders and technicians from around Alberta met with the federal minister of Indigenous services this week in Edmonton.

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) near Fort McMurray attended the consultation with Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu on Bill C-61, billed as “an act respecting water, source water, drinking water, wastewater and related infrastructure on First Nation lands.”

“They were asking for our input on the bill and how it’s going to go down,” Adam said Thursday. “We will look at their legislation. At the Athabasca Chipewan First Nation, we have an act too. If it coincides, we will work with it, and if it doesn’t, we will discuss our concerns with Canada.”

In the wake of seepage and spills in 2022 and 2023 at Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake site, the Athabasca Chipewan First Nation is growing concerned about inauspicious indicators in their drinking water. “We’ve been finding things that are not part of the water system — more and more traces of things are popping up,” he said.

One idea gaining some traction is moving the water intake valve further up the lake where the water is clear and not so much where the river current flows, he said. “We’re looking at the whole structure, and we’re asking the Region of Wood Buffalo to take a look,” he said, adding the price tag for the reposition could be upwards of $50 million.

The Kearl Lake debacle

In May 2022, wastewater contaminated with arsenic, dissolved heavy metals and hydrocarbons started seeping into the landscape surrounding the Kearl operation close to tributaries feeding the Firebag and Muskeg rivers.

On Jan. 31, 2023, more than five million litres of fluid spilled from an Imperial tailings pond there. The spills and seepages were made public a week later when the Alberta Energy Regulator issued an environmental protection order against Kearl.

  1. Scientists say Kearl oilsands tailing pond spills were harmful to fish
  2. Chief Allan Adam accuses Alberta and premier of minimizing oilsands seepage, demands access to site

At the time, the ACFN criticized both theregulator and the company for keeping the spills quiet for so long. The nearby Mikisew Cree First Nation asked for an independent review of the AER’s management of tailings ponds.

The government of the Northwest Territories accused the Alberta government of breaking an agreement to inform them of the spills. The Athabasca River connects to Lake Athabasca, which feeds the Slave River that flows into the N.W.T.

Scientists said nearby muskeg and forested public lands and water bodies were threatened by the leak, and more affected water was found in fish-bearing water nearby — and the leaky pond likely harmed fish.

The Alberta Energy Regulator received a report from Imperial Oil and “non-compliances” were issued.

Enforcement officers issued a Fisheries Act direction against Imperial Oil, and the company was ordered to immediately contain the seep and prevent it from entering fish-bearing water bodies.

A documentary by journalist Brandi Morin titled Killer Water put the dilemma of local water drinkers in the spotlight. “We’re in a unique situation and we’ve got to make sure we question everything that we feel is unfit,” Allan said. “We lobby the government to fix our problems. It gets frustrating at times, but hopefully we’ll move forward.”

Same problems everywhere

ACFN is a fairly small First Nation of about 1,450 members, with similar numbers of members in Fort Chipewyan, Fort McMurray and Edmonton, and more spread “all over the world,” Adam said.

Water is not their only worry in times where mental health and addiction are concerns across the board in all parts of Canadian society. “We struggle like all other First Nations, with mental health issues, the opioid crisis,” he said. “We’re struggling like everyone else.”

On Thursday morning, Adam and Jay Telegdi, the band’s deputy director of emergency management, met with Indigenous and Northern Affairs officials.

The elected chief of the tiny First Nation was surprised to find his First Nation garnered front-page attention in the press for distributing $4,500 worth of essentials to distribute to encamped houseless on the streets of Edmonton.

“We try to reach out and help as much as we can. When you have something, it’s good to share and spread it around,” Adam said. “I want to say rest assured to people out there who are struggling, there are people out there and First Nations out there that care about them,” he said.

“That’s what it’s all about — it’s for the love of humanity.”

Author of the article:

Jackie Carmichael