If it wasn’t for the cannons, the pond might be a tranquil sight: its rippling surface reflects the blue of the sky, diffusing the harsh midday light. But the cannons fire sporadically, a warning to migrating ducks not to land in this toxic soup of arsenic, mercury and carcinogenic hydrocarbons—1,600 ducks died after landing in one of these tailings ponds in 2008.
This is the epicenter of the Athabasca Tar Sands operation in northeastern Alberta, Canada, just outside the oil boomtown of Fort McMurray. It’s the third-largest proven deposit of crude oil and the largest industrial project on earth—so costly and environmentally destructive that it’s considered a frontier resource, viable only because conventional oil sources are in decline. I visited in late June as part of the Tar Sands Healing Walk, in which First Nations activists led 250 participants on a fourteen-kilometer loop of the oil producer Syncrude’s operations there. The air was noxious and the scale of the destruction nearly impossible to take in, but the Dene drummers steadied us with their constant beat.
Tailings are a byproduct of tar sands processing, a wastewater residue left to collect in pools so vast and numerous that they can be seen from outer space. These tailings ponds are not secure: an Environment Canada study from February confirmed that the ponds are leaking into the Athabasca River, which flows into the Mackenzie—the largest river system in Canada—before discharging into the Arctic Ocean. Fort Chipewyan, a remote hamlet downstream from Fort McMurray, emerged in the national consciousness in 2006 when its only doctor, John O’Connor, went public about the high rate of rare cancers in the community. Health Canada accused him of misconduct when O’Connor suggested that this might be connected to tar sands pollution.
Shell has now proposed the Jackpine Mine Expansion and the Pierre River Mine on the traditional territory of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which includes Fort Chipewyan. “You’d be kidding if you thought that Shell hasn’t been offering sweet deal after sweet deal to our nation,” said ACFN spokeswoman and Fort Chipewyan resident Eriel Deranger. “But instead of making money, we’ve spent close to $2 million already to challenge these projects.” The ACFN asserts that the projects will destroy its cultural livelihood along with the ecosystem itself.
“We have a line that shouldn’t be crossed, as per our elders’ council, and we’re holding it,” Deranger continued. “It’s not about money. It’s about the protection and preservation of our land, culture and identity.”
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This is the front line in the fight against tar sands development. When most of Canada’s First Nations ceded their territories to the British crown in the late nineteenth century, they did so in exchange not only for reserves but also for the right to hunt and fish on their traditional lands in perpetuity—lands which many of these nations now say are threatened by rapid resource development.