Environment
South Slave

In video, Smith’s Landing Elders express unease at low water


A video produced by the Smith’s Landing First Nation documents a “northern waters crisis” happening around the community.

Elders of the Smith’s Landing First Nation have made a video to demonstrate what they believe are record low water levels in their region.

“I’ve never seen the water level this low before, where the fish couldn’t even go upstream,” said Lawrence Cheezie, of Fort Smith.

In the video, the Cheezie estimates the width of the river behind him has been reduced by 80 feet over his lifetime.

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This spring, when Elders realized water levels appeared lower than they’d ever seen, they called their First Nation’s lands coordinator to ask what could be done.

Becky Kostka, who received those calls, said at first she didn’t think there was a lot the First Nation could do.

They couldn’t just call up the Bennett Dam, upstream, and ask for more water to be released, said Kostka – just like they can’t control the cumulative impacts of oil sands upstream, or low snowfall that winter.

Then she realized the First Nation could document the Elders’ views and try to communicate their level of concern.

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To do that, the First Nation decided to make a video – in which Cheezie appears alongside and well-known local activists and Elders François Paulette and Jane Dragon.

As an example of the low water level’s impact, Kostka said Smith’s Landing tried to holder a sucker fish culture camp in the spring at the Salt River. However, for the first time, there wasn’t enough water. The fish didn’t make it to their usual spawning site and the camp had to be cancelled. 

On the Slave River, said Kostka, there was no ice jam at all. The ice clung to the rocks and sandbars, melting in place. Viewing drone footage, the First Nation realized some of what members thought was ice was actually just exposed rocks.

“The ice is stuck to the mud,” says Dragon in the video. “It’s never been like that. Pretty soon we’ll walk across. All the delta has dried up.

“If they build another dam – I know they’re talking about [Site C] – I think that one will finish us off.”

Dragon has lived in Fort Smith for 70 years. She has never seen the water so low.

“There is a general fear that there is no water,” said Kostka. 

“Most people don’t really know what to do. It’s just the way our world is changing. There is a general understanding that we need to get used to it and adapt to the changing environment.”

“How do we adjust to a changing climate, land, and water?” she questioned.

If projects like Site C and the Teck Resources mine on the far side of Wood Buffalo National Park move forward, Kostka said the First Nation needs funding for emergency plans, asset management plans, adaptation strategies, and capacity building, in order to react to potential threats and better monitor the changing environment.

In May, the First Nation’s Elders met for a traditional knowledge policy workshop. The High Level wildfire was a big topic of concern.

“There are all of these fires around us and no water,” said Kostka, summarizing the discussion.

“What is the rest of the summer going to bring? It’s really scary, especially being in a small community with one road out.”

Standing beside the Dog River, François Paulette called the water levels “pitiful.”

Water levels for the Slave River over the past 20 years, as measured at Fort Fitzgerald.

Smith’s Landing plans to produce more videos to provide its members’ concerns a platform – and the First Nation urged the federal government to declare a national emergency on climate change.

Cheezie restated the First Nation’s concern that Smith’s Landing is downstream from industries like dams on the Peace River and the oil sands tailings ponds. 

“They use up all of the water before it gets here, and they pollute it also,” he said.

“So what are we going to do if we run out of water? We can’t make water … It’s a shame that money is more important than water.”

At the end of the video, Smith’s Landing reiterated its concern that it has never been consulted nor accommodated, in its view, on projects that have lead to significant changes in its territory.

“We don’t have a chance to say how we are being impacted,” said Kostka. 

“We can’t even propose or request accommodation measures because they haven’t consulted us, and that makes adaptation even more difficult.”

Kostka said corporations have argued Smith’s Landing is too far removed from projects to be impacted.

But the Treaty 8 First Nation says this lack of consultation infringes on its Treaty rights – and feels falling water levels represent proof of the cumulative impacts of climate change and development.

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