A new chief in March for the Beaver Lake Cree Nation is likely to result in a new philosophy when it comes to battling oil sands development in the Fort Chipewyan area.
“A new leadership might decide to take a little more aggressive action,” said Ron Lameman, advisor to current Chief Al Lameman.
At the heart of Ron Lameman’s comments is the newly released report, Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel: Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry.
The 438-page report ignores the people who live in the region and who feel the impacts of the development personally, said Lameman.
“The report doesn’t give enough credit to acknowledge the knowledge of Indigenous people. It’s based on (the panel’s) skewed scientific knowledge,” said Lameman.
The panel was struck in 2009 to “review and assess available evidence” on the impact of development of the oil sands in northern Alberta.
Clayton Thomas-Muller, Tar Sands Campaigner of the Indigenous Environmental Network, said the data came primarily from government and industry sources.
Among the nine “major findings” noted in the executive summary by the panel is that there is “currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands reaching Fort Chipewyan at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer rates.”
Increased cancer rates in the area have been an issue for the past few years after an observation by long-time fly-in physician John O’Connor that his patients had higher-than-expected levels of cancer. O’Connor’s claims were denied by government officials and resulted in O’Connor being sanctioned.
Lameman said experts studying the issue of environmental contamination refuse to talk to the First Nations people because “the almighty dollar is a huge determining factor.”
Lameman contended that it is not the development of the oil sands that is at issue as much as how quickly the oil sands are being developed.
“When (development) first started it was always done a little bit at a time. But the huge push to expand the tar sands 10-fold has been a very recent development,” said Lameman.
The impact of the increased pace has been felt, he said, pointing to the wildlife, habitat, air quality, water quality and health —all of which are areas the expert panel said have experienced “minimal impacts.”
“It’s undeniable that our people have seen significant impacts on the levels and quality of our river and lakes due to the tar sands. We have seen sicknesses and disappearance of traditional food sources,” said Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam in a news release.
The one positive piece of information that can be taken from the report, said Lameman, is that there are “serious deficiencies” when it comes to the environmental impact assessment process and the monitoring of water quality in the Athabasca river.
“The regulatory agencies, like the Energy Resources Conservation Board and Alberta Environment, are incapable of keeping pace with the scale of development, which is what we’ve been saying all along,” said Lameman.
First Nations in the region are calling for a moratorium on further development.
“All we want is to have a chance to reassess what is happening realistically. What we called for —a moratorium on any expansion—was agreed to by chiefs in Alberta. But we know how much that is worth,” said Lameman.
First Nations in the Fort Chipewyan area have taken legal action to help halt further development. The most recent action was the push to have the federal government aggressively enforce legislation that would protect the Woodland caribou, an endangered species, by protecting the environment.
“The chief and myself, we are of a certain generation. We’re using diplomacy as much as we can. We’re not going to be able to control the action the young people are going to take if in the future, a lot of what we’re saying right now is borne out in actuality,” said Lameman.
Diplomacy, he said, has only taken the First Nation so far.
The demographics for the Beaver Lake Cree Nation show a majority of people between the ages of 18-25.
Like many other First Nations, Beaver Lake Cree Nation is strategically placed in the heart of the development.
“Some other First Nations have taken the decision to take further actions,” said Lameman. “We’re not advising (our young people) to take any more serious action, but the numbers are the ones that will determine what kind of action is going to be taken.”
Al Lameman will not be seeking re-election in March.