[This article is written by Cleo Reese. She is a grandmother and councilor in Fort McMurray First Nation and an organizer of the annual Tar Sands Healing Walk]
In Fort McMurray First Nation we have quite a few concerns about the environment around us. Due to the fast pace of development of industry on the land, together with climate change, the impact on our traditional territory is greater than if it was just one or the other.
The Technical Advisory Group for the First Nations of Alberta worked with us to research muskeg and capture our Elder’s traditional knowledge on film, because that is a very significant part of the ecosystem up here. If something happens to the muskeg (Cree=Muskego), it has huge impacts for many generations to come. Being in the boreal forest, there are lots of wetland areas, with bogs and fens and muskeg, creeks and small lakes. A lot of the elders still remember how things were before all the land was taken up by industry. The elders have noticed that the muskeg areas are drying out. There is water being taken out of the land around here for industry. We feel there’s more water is being taken out than there should be.
The birch trees seem to be dying out. The birch trees we have here are quite small. They’re not growing, they’re dying off it seems. People need to know where that is coming from, why that is happening. We know there’s a lot of water affected here. We don’t know if that’s climate change, or industry. But the water quality of our lake, Gregoire Lake, is not good any more.
Last year the Enbridge spill was very close to our community. It was only 20km away. That was in our traditional territory. Now there’s oil saturated fens, and small lakes out there. The surface oil has been cleaned up, but there’s still a lot that seeped into the ground. And that’s a muskeg area.
We’re also concerned about air quality. The elders tell us that the air doesn’t smell the same. That the air doesn’t smell good. If humans can smell that, then certainly animals will smell that too. We’re seeing a disappearance of local wildlife. I guess we still have rabbits around, but they’re not in abundance as they used to be. We’re not seeing moose around very much; they’re more rare now than they were before.
All of this points to the fact that we need to get more research done. We need more baseline data to understand what is happening to our land. The more information that we can get out there, the better. The more public support we can get, will help us get these research studies done as quickly as possible.
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.