Dehcho Leader Calls for Tar Sands Moratorium


Fort McMurray, Alberta – Jan. 31

After completing a tour of the Suncor oil sands facilities north of here, Grand Chief Herb Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations, called on Canada and Alberta to support a moratorium on further development of the massive oil producing Athabasca Tar Sands “until some sanity can be brought into this situation.”

Norwegian led a delegation of 11 chiefs and elders from the Dehcho to view the operations of Suncor, and meet with leaders of First Nations groups in northern Alberta to discuss what he called “the serious decline of the quantity and quality of water in Mackenzie River watershed.” The Mackenzie River watershed flows through some 212,000 sq km of the land 5,500 Decho live on. Their claim to the land they have always lived on is currently being negotiated with Canada.

“Our people who saw this massive development from the air as we flew in from the North and again today from the windows of a bus, were shocked,” Norwegian told a press conference. He pointed out that 87 percent of the Mackenzie River flows through the Northwest Territories and yet the huge reductions in water levels and changes in the fish and wildlife come from here, south of the NWT, he told reporters while Suncor officials listened.

“We are all devastated by what we have seen these days. This so-called ‘development’ project is out of control and we have to tell the politicians that it is like a cancerous tumour and that the Mackenzie Gas Project is designed to feed that tumour.” The MGP has currently applied to the National Energy Board to build a pipeline to bring natural gas from the High Arctic down the Mackenzie Valley to the pipeline networks of Alberta. The Dehcho oppose the pipeline until their claims are satisfactorily settled and serious environmental questions answered.

Elders and chiefs described how water levels have been fluctuating as much as 10 feet in some places along the mighty river and that fish and waterfowl are being negatively affected as well as wild game and the habitat they live on. The water is not fit to drink or swim in some places and fish have become soft and discoloured in others. The Dehcho rely on the water, fish, birds and game for food and trapping.

“Our elders have been telling us of these changes for a long time,” Norwegian said” and we think that these water problems are coming from here in this huge area around Fort McMurray. We live upstream from this and are severely impacted by this blowout of a development. The problems for us and our land and animals and people are here. We have to sit with the developers and the governments and other First Nations in open doors, not closed meetings and the federal government has to pay the major role in cleaning up this mess that affects all Aboriginal people.”

Ironically, as Norwegian was speaking, Alberta’s new Premier, Ed Stelmach, had been telling people of Fort McMurray the Athabasca tar sands project had only “a very narrow window of opportunity” to address, and fix, the problems fuelled by the massive and rapid growth.

There are more than $100 billion of work planned for the region in the next decade but, as Norwegian stated “the water and the environment we live in is in danger of destruction and we in the Dehcho are not even consulted. The tar sands are also Canada’s largest producers of greenhouse gas emissions, the cause of frightening global warming and climate change.

Stelmach agreed with people, the latest being the Dehcho, who have said that the situation is critical. Fort McMurray, a city of some 50,000 has massive social problems, inadequate housing, three times the number of motor vehicle fatalities per capita than the rest of Alberta, drug abuse and four times the average of sexually transmitted diseases.

“With each project approved, the growing demands on water and the environment and the absence of any sustainable solutions weighs more heavily on the people of the north,” Bill Erasmus of Yellowknife, national chief of the Dene Nation, who accompanied the Dehcho delegation.

The DFN delegation held meetings in Fort McMurray to discuss with the Athabasca Tribal Council and neighbouring first nations the way forward. Last year, the Dehcho, at the urging of their elders held a large conference in Fort Simpson to discuss the serious water problems in their land and issued a declaration that First Nations are Keepers of the Waters”. Norwegian urged this meeting of key Aboriginal players to form an alliance to address the water issues and the issues of massive development.

They heard of the degradation of the boreal forest ecosystem, the “dewatering” of rivers and streams to support the tar sands operations and the threat to the cultural survival of the people according to their treaty rights. The areas of concern are under Treaties 8 and 11, Treaties that ensure that lands of First Nations should not be taken away from them by massive uncontrolled development which threatens their culture and traditional way of life.

Late last year, Norwegian told his people, Suncor, the oldest tar sands mine in the region. was granted an expansion of its operations which already produce 225,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd) and will reach 500,000 bbd by 2012.

During the tour, the Dehcho were accompanied by two Suncor public relations people who would not allow the group to take pictures. Questions about the impact of large tailing ponds bursting toxic waste on the land, the proximity of the mining operations to the Athabasca River, in some places an estimated 150 feet, and destruction of the boreal forest were not answered.

The grand chief told his people of research done by pro-moratorium supporters across Canada that for every barrel of oil produced by Suncor that between four and eight barrels of water were used from the Athabasca River, which flows through the tar sands and is part of the Mackenzie Valley watershed.

Using the latest figures available from the Alberta Energy Board, Suncor sucked up 45.5 billion barrels of water in 2004 although its claims to recycle 75 percent of this but its quality is questionable. Holding tanks for toxic waste, some of them as big as 15 sq km, are larger than many natural lakes in the area. It is estimated by the AEB that current and future projects will require an unimaginable 175 million litres of water a day.

“I cannot even imagine what figures like this look like, they are almost meaningless to the average person from Dehcho,” Norwegian said, “but I do know this whole place looks like a moonscape. “ And it will get worse. Imperial Oil and Shell Canada have been granted permission to build new sites, bringing the total of existing and planned tar sands producers to 11 with more leases opening up almost daily.

“The government and the oil companies talk about ‘balance’, a balance between the environment and the economy. But this is no balance, this whole scheme is unbalanced to the point it is out of control. We aboriginal people need to demand a stop to this until we can find out where the mess is going. We have to ask the hard questions: do we need this? Is this kind of development just a waste? What is going to happen to our land and our water? And our people? As Dene we do not differentiate between the land, water, air, earth, wildlife, birds, fish and people. The people and the land are inseparable. That is real balance, “ he said.

For further information, please call Grand Chief Herb Norwegian: (867) 695-2355/2610