March 22nd is generally celebrated by First Nations and environmental organizations as World Water Day.
But elders from across the Northwest Territories spoke out about their concerns over the cleanliness of fresh water, and the impacts industrial activities such as strip-mining for bitumen rich oilsands in Fort McMurray, and pipelines are having on the Athabasca, Peace and Mackenzie Rivers which all eventually flow to the Arctic Ocean.
“Water is life. It feeds farmers fields, we relied on it for generations for transportation and the fishery. That has all changed now. Our whitefish are turning pink, the pickerel have blisters and deformed spines. The commercial fishery is done, and will likely not return in my lifetime,” Fort Chipweyan elder Alice Rigney told CKLB radio on Friday.
A River destroyed, is how Rigney sees it. She says the science being touted by the Alberta Government and Oil companies is laughable.
“Next time they come to our community and claim the water is clean, I want to take them out to the river and tell them to dip a cup and drink it. They won’t, they’ll have their bottled water, they dont drink from the stream like we used to,” added Rigney.
Further downstream, tucked in along the Slave River is the Smith’s Landing First Nation. It’s colonial name is Fort Fitzgerald, and is part of the Akaitcho Territory Government. It’s a Denesuline community with families who have relations in Fort Chipweyan, Fort McKay, and LutselK’e. Fort Fitz, as it’s called by the locals is still surrounded by tall trees of the Boreal Forest and neighbors Wood Buffalo National Park. It is not over-run with Open pit mines, but on some days Paulette says residents there and in Fort Smith, NWT can smell gaseous odors from the development happening in Fort McMurray.
“We have had several Dene prophets who have told us to protect the water. Before the white settlers came to our land, and we have to listen to what they have foretold. They said the white man will come back, and after the gold and oil is gone they are going to come back to the North in search of water and food,” Paulette said on CKLB radio.
But there are two allies of the Dene who are also pushing for protection of water and habitat, The Council of Canadians NWT Chapter and Ducks Unlimited Canada.
In 2015 the Council For Canadians issued a study entitled, “ON NOTICE FOR A DRINKING WATER CRISIS IN CANADA.”
It concluded clean drinking water was under fire from a surge in Hydraulic Fracturing for shale oil in New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia. The Council also cited major pipelin project and mega-dams like Site C in BC as other concerning projects that impact Rivers natural flow.
Frank T’Seleie was also a Chief during the famous Berger Inquiry, and the early years with the Dene Nation. He’s a member of the Kasho Gotine, of Fort Good Hope. It’s one of the four Dene communities that make up the Sahtu Dene Council.
“The changes have been noticeable since the construction of the Bennett Dam. The River flow has never been the same since, and it doesn’t freeze or thaw the way it should. It’s very unusual. It’s so low the barges can’t bring our materials or goods on time even down the Mackenzie,” explained T’Seleie
Dene elders such as Tetlit Gwich’in Charlie Snowshoe from Fort McPherson, have said numerous times their main concerns with pipelines and Alberta’s Oil Sand developments, are the impacts they have on migratory birds, and on the habitats of fur bearing animals they have relied on for trade and food, such as muskrats, beavers and moose. Not to mention the spiritual contents water has, plus the drinking water crisis facing many First Nation reserves and communities in Southern Canada.
The council says, “Community organizing played a key role in the moratoria on fracking in the Atlantic provinces,” where 16 communities have become “Blue Communities” by passing resolutions that recognize the human right to water, and ban the sale of bottled water at municipal facilities and events, and pro-mote public water services.
Ducks Unlimited Canada is currently lobbying the Government of the Northwest Territories to strengthen is environmental legislation and clean water policies. They are also leading the way in the North when it comes to Wetland mapping, and building partnerships with Indigenous Governments in the Akaitcho, Tlicho, Dehcho, Sahtu and Mackenzie Delta.
“We need to see the GNWT act on protecting the watersheds of the NWT, they act like a fridge and help in the fight against erosion, wildfires, and climate change we are witnessing like the record breaking heat we saw this week closing winter roads,” said Ducks Unlimited NWT Manger Sonny Lenoir.
Lenoir is also Ducks Unlimited first full-time Indigenous employee. Something people in his home community of Fort Simpson, and the Dehcho First Nations take pride in.