To that backdrop, Indigenous groups, scientists and other interested parties are attending this week’s water summit in Inuvik – a meeting that now has a razor-sharp focus amid calls for urgent action and global headlines about Kearl.
As the summit began, delegates debated legal action and recommended more research into the oil sands’ human health impacts.
Chief Robert Charlie-Tetlichi of the Inuvik Native Band told Cabin Radio the summit had “come at an opportune time to ensure that when something happens upstream of us, we all put our collective voices together.”
Alyssa-Mae Laviolette, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation directly downstream from Kearl, is attending the summit in her new role as tar sands outreach coordinator for Keepers of the Water, a collective of Indigenous and environmental groups focused on the Arctic Ocean’s drainage basin.
This week’s summit “really has come at the right time,” Laviolette said.
“Now more than ever we all have to work together and communicate, because not only are we impacted on the downstream, like in northern Alberta, but all of us are connected in regard to everything that’s going on.”
Criticizing Imperial Oil’s response to date, she said Kearl’s impact made clear that oil sands operators and Indigenous communities need to work together to find a new way of co-existing that focuses on transparency and collaboration.
“Industry needs to come forward and get away from saying that there was a lack of communication,” she said.
On its first day, northern Alberta residents described hearing nothing from Imperial Oil or any level of government, even with cabins in the vicinity of the spill.
One presenter expressed concern about eating a moose that was harvested in the region.
“Anything that’s been harvested from the Athabasca, anything that has come from those lands in that area, people are worried,” said Laviolette.
“Losing our harvesting rights impacts all of us, so there’s a huge concern for many different things – not just the drinking water but also the livelihood of our traditional practices and how the watershed is so important to us.”
Dr Courtney Howard, a Yellowknife emergency room physician for the past decade, presented on the lack of studies that adequately assess the oil sands’ effect on human health.
“We haven’t had the studies that we need,” Dr Howard told delegates by video link.
In the past 20 years, the studies that do exist have – in some instances – found higher-than-expected incidences of some cancers in northern Alberta communities. But each of those studies comes with the warning that the sample size is too small to draw reliable conclusions.
Howard wants future studies to take a different approach.
“Because there are so few people in the community, the statistics are very difficult to work out in a precise manner. This is always going to be a problem if what we’re looking for is only cancer rates, because they take years to develop after an exposure. They’re relatively rare, and all of our communities downstream are very small in population,” she said.
“In any further studies, we need to make sure that we’re looking at more than cancer, because the math is just not designed to be able to let us really come to strong conclusions in the type of communities that we live in.
“We need to be really, really firm with government that more complex studies are required.”
Howard was not the only presenter on Tuesday to raise the unnerving smell that can arise in and around oil sands communities. She said research into localized air pollution and its effects is similarly lacking.
Summarizing, Howard said: “The fact that this research hasn’t been done is one of my greatest sources of distress as a physician.
“I just am really glad we’re having this conversation because it’s past time, and people in the oil sands region and downstream deserve to have all of the research knowledge, the health knowledge that Canada can bring to bear on this topic to alleviate fears and improve the situation.”
Legal action considered
Headlines about Kearl arrive at an awkward moment for Wood Buffalo National Park.
Though Parks Canada has set out plans to improve the park and work more closely with Indigenous communities, a months-long tailings leak and separate, massive spill in the vicinity will do nothing to calm fears that Wood Buffalo is under threat.
UN cultural agency Unesco has not given a specific timeline for inspectors to report back after last year’s trip, though Wood Buffalo’s status is likely to come up at a major meeting set to be held in Saudi Arabia in September.
The extent to which Kearl could form a factor in any assessment of the park’s future is unclear.
Laviolette said what happened at Kearl demonstrates that the whole Wood Buffalo region is “under a crisis.”
“It’s supposed to be protected but it’s not being protected,” she said.
Delegates are now searching for a unified response that will advance the interests not just of those in and around the park, but all communities around and downstream of the oil sands.
“If there are ways we can come up with recommendations or action items out of this meeting, it would go a long way to ensuring we have some protective measures in place and these things don’t happen again,” said Chief Charlie-Tetlichi.
“We do have transboundary water agreements with Alberta, BC and the Yukon [but] we’re not actual parties to those agreements. Maybe we need to have our voice included.”
Another possibility is legal action. Dene Nation lands and environment director Trevor Teed raised the prospect of using provisions in the federal Species at Risk Act to hold Imperial Oil and others to account.
As advocates assess their options, Laviolette wants people to keep talking.
“What is really important is to talk about this – not just because it’s in the headlines right now,” she said.
“After all of this settles, there need to be more conversations instead of not having conversations for years and years.”