The casual skimmer of the Edmonton Journal might see this headline and think impure thoughts. ‘Trail-blazing aboriginal doctor worries Fort Chipewyan residents not ready for major lifestyle change‘ may seem, to the uninformed masses, like Fort Chipewyan needs a major attitude adjustment about their health. Everyone knows that aboriginal communities struggle with smoking, diabetes, drug use, lack of physical activity and poor food choices, right? Fort Chip is no different? Wrong. The headline implies that Fort Chip needs to pull itself up from it’s bootstraps, butthe body of the article shows this couldn’t be further from the truth. It preferably should have read ‘Colonization of Fort Chipewyan Sickening Residents.’ In fact, the observations strengthen the findings from the Environmental and Human Health Implications of Athabasca Oil Sands report this outfit launched last July. Highlighting the important work that Dr. Esther Tailfeathers does in this remote community, a disturbing picture of inaccessibility to adequate health care, forced declines in traditional and healthy lifestyles, and a racist policy of apathy is painted.
On lifestyle vices, the good Doctor think that Fort Chip is actually better off than other indigenous communities, including the one she hails from:
…the conditions in Fort Chipewyan seem nearly idyllic. Unemployment is relatively low. There appears to be no significant problem with alcohol or drugs.
“The two communities I work in are very different but they probably started out very similar,” Tailfeathers says. “My reserve [Blood Indian Reserve] is surrounded by an urban environment, and the stress of colonization has existed in the south a lot longer than here.
“I think the remoteness and isolation in Fort Chipewyan has provided protection for the community because people have been able to maintain a traditional lifestyle because they had to. But there is going to be a big change, and it is not going to be healthy for them emotionally, spiritually or physically.” (Emphasis mine).
The changes that are being forced upon Fort Chip are many. They include an inability to visit traditional territories, which is in part due to decreased water levels attributed to the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. More insidious is the poisoning of the water from upstream development, including the Ethical Athabasca Oil Sands; where before a family could depart to the land for endless weeks and dip their cup into any number of waterways, now fresh water must be bottled and boated, at an onerous cost, into the bush. This has effectively destroyed an entire way of life that brought meaningful employment to many. Concerns about the quality and danger of eating traditional foods is forcing a transition from these otherwise healthy choices to processed foods at exorbitant prices. Says Dr. Tailfeathers:
“The first year I came here, a lot of people were fishing and hunting, but over the last two years the number of people eating fish and wild game is really decreasing,” Tailfeathers says. “A number of elders have come in and said, ‘What’s the use of spending my time fishing if I can’t eat the fish?’ Or, ‘What is the use of going hunting if I can’t eat the meat?’ “They are fearful about drinking the water and eating the fish and moose. That drastically changes their lifestyle.” Tailfeathers says the frequency of obesity and diabetes is increasing as people abandon their traditional diet and eat more store-bought food. The number of patients with autoimmune disorders is also rising. “We did see a lot of deaths this last year secondary to cancer. People are coming in more often for a screening because it has become a fear in the community,” she says. “But we don’t know how or if that is linked to the changes in the environment. “We really have no idea what the baseline is in terms of what is happening in the community.”(emphasis mine)
Well, we actually do know that changes in the environment are scaring people towards less healthy choices, although calling it a choice between eating cancer causing fish and high price canned food is rather obtuse. How about ‘the devil you know.‘ Of course, the last doctor that went out on a limb to suggest that rare and aggressive cancers were being caused by upstream development was pilloried by the Canadian government and nearly ruined.
Saying ‘we don’t know’ is really just science talk for ‘not enough studies have been done.’ In our study, which involved ~10% of the community, we found that eating locally caught fish, or working in the oil sands, brought out a statistically discernible incidence of cancers. Everyone knows that correlation doesn’t equal causation, so we cannot ‘scientifically conclude’ that polluted water or the oil sands is the culprit, but it certainly raises important questions and is worthy of deeper research. However, like the underfunded, understaffed health care system in Fort Chip, meaningful (expensive and thorough) research into these health concerns continues to be ignored. Our health study has been shelved by decision makers and no actions have been undertaken.
“If any of these things was happening in any other community, there would be a huge outcry. These are services we should have access to as Albertans.
Michael Tyas is the managing editor of One River News. He graduated the University of Manitoba with an honours degree in environmental studies, and is a professional videographer and video trainer. He produced the feature length documentary "One River, Many Relations" in Fort Chipewyan. He continues to work with indigenous communities to share their stories around resource extraction, industrial development, and impacts on traditional territories.