One River, Many Relations Research Project – Issue 2

2011 summer archie showing stef a field

Archie Antoine (MCFN) and Dr. Stéphane McLachlan looking at a dried lake in the Peace-Athabasca Delta


Stef McLachlan and Andy Miller

Environmental Conservation Lab, University of Manitoba

Stef McLachlan has been conducting research on environmental health and justice in partnership with Indigenous communities across western Canada. He is especially interested in how western science can better serve the needs of these communities. Andy Miller now teaches at University of Winnipeg and has a research program that links ecological science with Traditional Knowledge.

Phase 1: Changes in environment due to upstream development (Spring 2011 – Spring 2012).

The overall goal of this project is to document any impacts of the Oil Sands and other industrial development on environment and human health over the next five years on the Peace and Slave Rivers. The project was started by the Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. It now involves researchers from University of Manitoba and University of Saskatchewan and is extending to Fort Smith and Fort Resolution and beyond.

Outcomes of this participatory research are shaped and controlled throughout by all those communities that are involved.

From Spring 2011 to Spring 2012, university researchers made three visits to Fort

Chipewyan. During these visits, we visited with many community members in town and out on the land.  These visits allowed us to hang with folks and to begin understanding community concerns.

Through these discussions conversations, we learned that much environmental change is taking place. Elders and other community members are worried about contaminants released by the Oil Sands. People are noticing changes in the smell and colour of the water and snow. But this pollution is made worse by changes in water levels and flooding caused by the W.A.C. Bennett Dam.

Together, these changes are negatively affecting wildlife, especially muskrats and fish. The low water levels affect the ability of muskrats to survive winters. Young muskrats are seen as particularly sensitive to contaminants. We were told that bird migration is also being affected. This is due to lights and noise of the mining as well as the toxic retention ponds. They are also affected by the drying of wetlands, where birds would normally stop to rest and feed as they migrate and when they would nest and breed. This, in turn, is affecting the success of spring and fall hunting.

Community members were also very worried about increases in cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan. Cancer is much more common than in the past. Cancers no longer just affect just the elderly but are also observed in young people and even babies. Locals have been told that many of these cancers are very rare, and seldom occur in the rest of the Canadian population.

Many saw changes in cancer as being caused by increased levels of contaminants in water and in wild-caught country food. Community members still hunt and fish, and collect medicines across their traditional territories. They are used for food and for cultural purposes.  But some people have stopped eating wild foods because of these changes.

As a result community members have been demanding a comprehensive health study – without any success. It is our hope that this work and similar scientific studied conducted by other researchers will help provide communities with information that can be used to better understand these changes.

In this first phase of this project, it was important to assess if contaminants exist in country foods. And if so, what contaminants are occurring and in what amounts they occur. Harvesters from MCFN and ACFN collected ducks and geese, muskrats, and moose that they normally would have eaten. These were sent to the wildlife veterinary labs at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. Veterinarians looked at the animals and assessed whether they were health or not. Generally speaking, they were seen as healthy according to western scientific standards. We were told later by community members that this is likely because harvesters had chosen healthy animals for food. They would have rejected animals that looked abnormal.

The next step was for the veterinarians to prepare samples from the all the wildlife.  Samples of kidneys, livers, and the muscle tissue (meat) were then sent to a commercial lab in Edmonton. The samples were tested for heavy metals, in particular mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and selenium. They were also tested for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Heavy metals and PAHs are known to cause health problems in humans.

We thought it would be most useful to present these results as “consumption limits” for the country food. This translates into the amount of any given organ of each species that a community member is safe to eat each week. This amount changes with the weight of the community member, so results differ depending on whether the person is a young child, an older child, a woman, or a man.

The results are mixed. Generally speaking, it is safe to eat the meat (muscle) of moose, muskrats, and ducks. In contrast, people should be more cautious when eating the kidneys and livers of moose and ducks. On one hand adults can eat more, almost 3.5 lbs of duck kidney or 1 lb of moose kidney per week. On the other hand, young children can only eat 11/3 lbs of duck kidney or 1/5 lb of moose kidney per week.

In contrast, muskrats were seen as safe to eat. But this may represent another bias. We were told that the few muskrats that remain only occur in water that is much cleaner, such as that coming down from the Birch Mountains. Muskrats no longer occur in water that is seen as affected by industry such as the Athabasca. So we are switching our focus to beaver, which are found in both contaminated and healthy waters. Some Elders have also told us that they no longer eat beavers, because they contain water. So it will be interesting if the lab tests turn out to be different.

We were also told that we should be more careful about where we harvest animals for later testing. And that we should continue searching for sick animals to send away. Something we are now doing in the second phase of this research.

From begging to end, we have gotten much useful feedback while conducting this work. Much of the feedback we had at a community meeting in Sept 2012. It was a noisy meeting for sure. Some folks were upset that the scientific data did not support the changes that local people know is happening. Importantly, there were many suggestions that will help make the science stronger. And it is our hope that the science conducted in the next phase of research will be more sensitive to the changes that are clearly taking place in the region. That is how good science works – as we build the puzzle piece by piece. Or at least that is how good science works when it is accountable to local communities.

Phase Two: Contaminants and Human Health (Spring 2012 – Summer 2013)

In the second phase of the research, we will continue testing for wildlife as described in Phase One. But we will now also test for beaver. We will also collect animals from affected and clean areas. Importantly, we will try and link these changes in wildlife and environment to changes in human health and wellbeing.

The new parts of the study will be as follows:

  • The first part is a diet study. This will describe how much country food is eaten and used by community members. It will identify which animals and plants (and which parts) are eaten. It will also show how these results change among the different seasons.
  • The second part is a health visioning exercise. Community members who participate can discuss some of the health concerns they have and what they would like this research and future research focus on.
  • The third part will look at environmental contaminants in humans. We will test human hair and urine for heavy metals, particularly mercury


As always, we will continue to report back on the results of this work – directly to community members, in community meetings, to the leadership and through this newsletter, and now this website.

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About Sheldon

Sheldon Birnie grew up in Dawson Creek, BC, and received a bachelor of environmental studies from the University of Manitoba in 2011. He lives in Winnipeg, MB, where he is a freelance writer, and the editor of the Manitoba Eco-Journal.
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