Current Problems


Oilsands discharge into First Nations water supply latest example of exploitation

April 20, 2023

Indigenous lands are continuously exploited and delegated as sacrifice zones for the gains of the rich, powerful and white society. 

Toronto Star: Once again Indigenous communities are bearing the brunt of the corruption, contamination and pollution of their territories by industry.

Yet another oilsands corporation has dumped 5.9 million litres of oilsands “overflow” water and mud into a creek that discharges into the Athabasca River. Announced on Tuesday by the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER), the amount released was two times over provincially regulated limits. 

Fort Chipewyan is in Northern Alberta, where mostly Dene, Cree and Métis people live, along the banks of the Athabasca River. The community of approximately 1,200 were (non-surprisingly) left in the dark about the spill into their main water source. Because side-stepping regulator rules is becoming standard practice by the biggest players in the business of oil. At the same time, the AER is failing to hold these industries to account. 

You may recall in February, Fort Chipewyan learned of a 5.3-million-liter toxic tailings leak from Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake Mine. This mine had been previously spilling for a whole year and Imperial, along with the AER, did not notify effected First Nations like Fort Chipewyan. 

On Monday, Indigenous leaders from Fort Chipewyan testified in hearings in Ottawaabout the impacts to their community. Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Chief Allan Adam called the AER a “complete joke” and called for its disbandment. 

In a statement released Wednesday, Chief Adam said, “Suncor’s actions highlight the continued failure of the AER to prevent, properly communicate, or proactively regulate environmental catastrophes in the oilsands. The AER needs to be disbanded and replaced with a new agency that is able to properly oversee industry. An agency that is rooted in the protection of our section 35 and Treaty rights.”

Chief Adam then criticized the AER on Wednesday after First Nation communities further downstream in the Northwest Territories were not informed about the spills, instead they found out from the ACFN. 

Are the oilsands executives performing test drills for their planned disposal of trillions of litres of aging tailings ponds waste into the Athabasca? The federal government is expected to finalized legislation for the oil industry on how to “safely” dump “treated” tailings into the river. 

A representative for Canadian Minister of Environment Steven Guilbeault said Canada is committed to “fix the notification process when something goes wrong” and “address ongoing concerns about the possibility of seepage from all oilsands tailings ponds.” 

But these concerns have piled up, the tailings have been leaking and leeching into nearby tributaries for years. The feds are talking remediation now because they probably feel backed into a corner by the recent damning headlines and public outcry. 

The Alberta and Canadian government minimize the severity of these spills to protect the interests of industry. In other words, it’s profit over people — the status quo treatment of Indigenous Peoples in so-called civilized Canada and around the world. 

Indigenous lands are continuously exploited and delegated as sacrifice zones for the gains of the rich, powerful and white society. Industries and governments are executing a license to butcher Indigenous lands, waters and lives with impunity. 

And it’s out of control. 

Our people have already survived genocide and continue to endure the consequences of colonial violence such as this. For decades, high numbers of a rare “bile duct” cancer has plagued Fort Chipewyan, which many residents believe is linked to contamination from the oilsands. With the recent tailings leaks and new contamination residents are afraid to consume their water, practice their inherent rights to hunt and fish and fear for the health of their families. 

The moral imperative is for industry, governments and their regulators to take responsibility. They should be put on the stand, sanctioned and immediately made to rectify this wilful destruction. 

If reconciliation is a top priority for Canada, then now is the time to endorse it. 

Brandi Morin, an award-winning French/Cree/Iroquois journalist from Treaty 6 in Alberta, is a freelance contributor for the Star. Reach her via email: