In oil country, First Nation with high cancer rates accuses AER of ‘regulated murder’

ACFN Councillor Mike Mercredi yells at AER CEO Laurie Pusher, “I got a graveyard full of family and people and friends that you killed. Their blood is on your hands! Your rules are being broken and you do nothing.” Photo by Brandi Morin

Editor’s note: Last year, journalist Brandi Morin and cinematographer Geordie Day travelled to Fort Chipewyan on assignment for Ricochet, The Real News Network and IndigiNews. The feature and short documentary “Killer Water” explored the impact of industrial pollution from the “Alberta” oil sands on the community. It recently won the Canadian Hillman Prize for investigative journalism. This month, Morin returned to the community to report on a long-awaited visit from the provincial regulator. This article is co-published with Ricochet and TRNN.

There were more than 100 people in the gathering hall in the isolated Northern “Alberta” hamlet of Fort Chipewyan on an evening in early March, as residents waited to hear from Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) CEO Laurie Pusher. He made the trek to the fly-in community to address the AER’s response to a massive tailings leak from an Imperial Oil site that was first disclosed in February of last year. 

When he arrived he was met with scowling faces and angry outbursts, as residents expressed their frustration with the regulator’s failure to promptly notify the community of the leak. 

Athabaska Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) councillor Mike Mercredi stood up several times to yell across the room to Pusher, accusing him of overseeing “regulated murder.”

Mercredi seethed at the CEO, saying he was making excuses for the AER’s lack of oversight.

“I got a graveyard full of family and people and friends that you killed. Their blood is on your hands! Your rules are being broken and you do nothing.”

ACFN Chief Allan Adam, who was expected to be away for the meeting, arrived unexpectedly and served a statement of claim to Pusher, whose face blazed red with embarrassment. 

The chief along with the ACFN band are named as plaintiffs in the $500 million lawsuit that claims the regulator failed to inform the First Nation about the leaks. The lawsuit alleges “negligence, nuisance, breach of the duty to consult, breach of the Honour of the Crown, breach of fiduciary duty, and unjustified treaty infringement.”

“We’re going to court,” declared Adam, after taking the microphone. Cheers erupted in the room.

‘We signed a treaty, and you are totally ignoring it’

Last year, Fort Chipewyan officials, alongside those from several other affected Indigenous communities, learned of a 5.3 million litre spill from Imperial Oil’s Kearl Mine (located about 75 kilometres upstream of the community). Soon after, they found out about another spill at the same mine site that had been leaking for at least nine months before they learned about it. 

Despite mine employees discovering the leak in 2022, and then notifying Imperial, which in turn alerted the AER, neither told affected Indigenous communities, the public, or provincial, territorial and federal governments. They were only informed when an Environmental Protection Order was released by the AER.

In October, the Canadian Press reported that Imperial Oil and the AER already knew that the tailings had been leaking for years.

“You’re coming here saying you’re concerned about us? Do you think I believe you?” Dene elder Alice Rigney chastised Pusher at the meeting.

“You talk about your experts, you got the scientists, all these top people, and still this shit happens on our land! And don’t ever say it’s industry’s land, it’s our traditional land, and always will be. You guys are encroaching on our territorial land. We signed a treaty, and you are totally ignoring it,” Rigney said.

She continued probing the CEO about the mishandling of the spills and demanding to know if any AER employees were fired or disciplined. Pusher largely dodged her questions. 

Rigney then accused the AER of rubber-stamping oil sands projects while ignoring the harmful impacts on the people of Fort Chipewyan.

“I’m speaking for my grandchildren and those yet to come. And that voice is not understood by you guys when you sign that application. Every time you put your X on it, it means that somebody else is going to die in this community from a rare cancer way, way earlier than they should have,” she added.

ACFN elder Alice Rigney holds a photograph of her grandmother holding fish she harvested in Jackfish Lake. Rigney was raised there, an area outside of Fort Chipewyan and a part of the ACFN reserve lands. Rigney said despite the water potentially being contaminated by the oil sands industry she continues to practice her traditions on the land.

In Fort Chipewyan, there continues to be documented elevated rates of cancer and other diseases with no official explanation as to the source. For the community, the tailings spills have heightened existing local concerns over contamination.

“The people know that something is up, that something is going on,” Rigney, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said earlier that day while sipping coffee at her kitchen table. “We knew from day one.”

She reminisced about her beloved 49-year-old nephew Warren James Simpson, who died of a rare bile duct cancer in 2019. Rigney described him as the “greatest all-around person, and kind like you wouldn’t believe.”

Not long after he was diagnosed and given just months to live, Simpson decided against undergoing experimental treatment due to its extensive side effects. 

Parked at a popular spot on a hill overlooking the stunning scenery of the Athabasca Lake, dotted with tree-lined rocky islands, Simpson told his aunt that he’d rather let the cancer take him, and skip the toxic meds.

“He said, ‘All I know is that I’m going to be sick from my head to my toes and my white blood cells would be dropping dangerously low, so I’ll get infections.’ It’s almost like he’d to have live in a vacuum, so he said ‘I’m not going to do it.’”

Warren James Simpson and his aunt Alice Rigney.

With the little time he had left, Simpson invited Rigney to take a nearly 2000-kilometre round trip with him through his traditional territories in the summer of 2018. The pair navigated the Athabasca and Slave Rivers to “Fort Smith” in the Northwest Territories, and then on to Yellowknife.

Rigney’s brown weathered eyes light up as she recalls the joy on Simpson’s face when he took in the grandeur of the wilderness where his ancestors once roamed, one last time. She prefers to remember him that way, not like the skeleton he became when the cancer ravaged him.

In December 2019, Rigney helped care for Simpson at his mother’s home in Fort Chipewyan. She recalls watching him starve to death because he could hardly keep any food down.

“His skin was kind of grayish, that’s what it does (the cancer), and his cheekbones and his eyes were starting to sink in,” she recalled. 

Her heart was broken, she says, but she did her best to comfort him.  

“I had made a pot of chicken soup and he said, ‘I’m hungry aunty.’ So, I went and got him half a cup of broth and put a little bit of rice, a little bit of chicken and mashed up carrots and made it really watery and gave it to him. He just drank the whole thing… that was his last meal.”

He requested that Dene gospel songs be played on the stereo around the clock while loved ones took turns providing palliative care. It was Rigney who held his hand when he took his last breath.

Simpson wanted his remains to return to the lands he cherished. He was cremated and the urn with his ashes was taken to ACFN’s Jackfish reserve, about an hour’s boat ride away on the banks of the river. It’s a former village site where Rigney was born and raised. Her family harvested healthy fish from the Athabasca and used the sustenance of the land to survive. 

Abnormal growths on a fish from Jackfish, taken in September 2022.

A dramatic change

These days, the conditions of the river and aquatic life are declining, she says. It’s common to find deformed fish in their catches, and many suspect the oddities are directly linked to industrial pollution upstream.

Nevertheless, Rigney practices her traditions like harvesting, drying and canning fish, and spending as much time as she can out on the territory.

“Even though I know my land is poisoned, I’ll still go out to Jackfish as soon as I can (if we can have enough water to get into the river this year). There is nothing more beautiful than spring on the land.” 

Her eyes gaze longingly out her kitchen window and her voice momentarily trails away. “The ducks, the robins. And, oh my God, you know… it’s beautiful.”

Rigney says she’s lost count of how many people in Fort Chipewyan have died too soon.

Another haunting memory she carries is that of a former local school bus driver named Albert Houle. She knew he was sick when she noticed a yellow-tinged colour to his skin. “I saw him and told the doctor ‘This guy needs to get out (of Fort Chipewyan) right now,’ he was jaundiced,” recalled Rigney.

The doctor she’s referring to is Dr. John O’Connor, a physician who practiced in Fort Chipewyan for nearly two decades. He alerted authorities after encountering multiple cases of a rare bile duct cancer popping up in the small population of about 1,200.

O’Connor was subsequently accused of raising undue alarm in the community by Health Canada in 2007 and charged with professional misconduct, which threatened his medical license. The residents of Fort Chipewyan defended him in a 2009 statement. 

“This charge of ‘causing undue alarm,’ since it was lodged, was the cause of much frustration and disbelief by residents of Fort Chipewyan,” read the statement.

“Frustration, because the residents of the community have never been consulted on whether we agree with the charge; and disbelief that the very responsible authority who is charged with protecting our interests and our health was actually lodging the complaints against Dr. John O’Connor, rather than coming to the aid of our community to find resolution to Dr. John O’ Connor’s claims.”

The charge of raising undue alarm was dismissed in November, 2009.

Meanwhile, people kept dying. Rigney said the cancer took Houle overnight.

ACFN elder Alice Rigney points to a cabin where she was born and raised at Jackfish Lake.

“It’s a fast cancer, you know, and so he was gone. The kids all say he’ll be driving the bus in heaven,” she paused to smile and consider that glimmer of hope. 

Then she stiffened up and adjusted her glasses, before a look of anguish washed over her face. “Our cemetery, it’s filling up so fast, you know.”

What’s even more unsettling is all the children fighting cancer in Fort Chipewyan. Rigney says she prays for her young neighbour, a friend of her grandson battling brain cancer in a hospital in “Edmonton.”

Rigney knows what it’s like to fight for her life. 

Not only did she survive the horrors of the Holy Angels Indian Residential School in Fort Chipewyan as a child, but she also beat cancer in 2012. She says she was “burnt almost to a crisp” after enduring 16 chemotherapy treatments.

She was livid to learn about the Kearl Mine spill and the AER’s delayed response. But she also wasn’t surprised.

“We were lied to again. The broken trust again. They’re (AER/industry) really good at it, breaking things. Trust is like a bottle, once it’s broken you can’t put it back together. Now, they’re trying to fool us by using words like ‘I promise it’ll never happen again,’ but don’t use those words, you don’t know what it means.”

Despite feeling ignored, Rigney said she’ll never stop speaking out.

“They’re (AER/industry) like giants. We’re like David and Goliath. They’ll never put Goliath down until the last drop of oil from his body is taken. And then, they’ll pack up and leave a mess for Mother Earth to rebuild… as she will. But it’s an uphill battle for us.”

Targeting those who raised the alarm

Lionel Lepine, 47, another ACFN band member, was once heavily involved with scrutinizing the oil sands. Beginning in 2007, he traveled across “Canada” and Europe speaking at environmental rallies and discussing the pollution impacting Fort Chipewyan. Before that, he’d worked for the oil industry interviewing elders in his community to document the negative changes they were seeing in their homelands. What he heard from them bothered him so much that he left the well-paid industry job and began speaking out against it.

“All of the things that we’ve used for thousands of years, the water, plants and the animals, all our medicines were getting contaminated,” he said. “Right now in that graveyard (pointing nearby), there’s probably 40 per cent of the people there that shouldn’t be there at all. They’re (the oil sands industry) killing our freaking water, which means they’re killing us.”

ACFN member Lionel Lepine says he’s been fighting the impacts of Alberta’s oil sands for years. But he’s tired of no one being held to account.

For years he passionately addressed industry executives, politicians and advocates about the seriousness of the situation. But the single father of two says he became disheartened when he was unfairly characterized by pro-industry zealots. 

One of them was Ezra Levant, founder of far-right Rebel Media and author of Ethical Oil: The Case for Canada’s Oil Sands. The book propagated the phrase “Ethical Oil,” which is still used by “Alberta’s” conservative government as justification for the expansion of the oil sands. 

In a December 2010 meeting of the Natural Resources Committee, Lepine spoke as the traditional environmental knowledge coordinator, industry relations, for ACFN about governmental and industry Indigenous rights violations, lack of consultation, threatened species and wildlife habitats and air and water contamination. Levant also presented at the meeting as an expert, due to his recently published book.

A few months later, after Lepine delivered a speech in Europe, Levant wrote a Sun News column accusing Lepine of being an “anti-oilsands activist from northern Alberta.” An introduction to the article reads, “A small group of Aboriginals, funded by international environmental extremists, toured France this week to condemn Canada’s oilsands as a ‘slow genocide.’” 

Lepine said the op-ed went viral, which made him uneasy.

“I started getting these, not threats, but I started to feel kind of intimidated by a lot of things. He (Levant) called me an environmental extremist, eco-terrorist, you know, he had all kinds of names for me.”

Lionel says he wanted to retaliate with a harsh response. But his Chief, Allan Adam, advised him not to, that it would be “just what Levant wanted,” to steer him off the course of fighting to protect the territory. 

After a few more years of endless campaigning, and receiving support from celebrities like director James Cameron and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who both visited Fort Chipewyan to better understand community impacts, Lepine was burnt out. 

He said he felt like their voices were being silenced amidst the boom of the oil industry.

ACFN Elder Roy Labouceur at his home in Fort Chipewyan opened the meeting with the AER with prayer. He said it’s time for industries to stop taking, and start respecting treaty rights and the way of life for the Indigenous people. “We cannot allow that anymore.”

Almost everyone was enticed by the economic benefits of industry, he said, including people in Fort Chipewyan. 

“People are so blinded by the money. They’re blinded by this big screen TV that they got in their house and they don’t see the people dying behind it. They’re so money-hungry, even some of our own people, that they don’t want to believe that there’s a problem. They don’t want them (industry) to shut down because it’s going to affect their jobs. But industry is profiting off our deaths.”

The latest tailings nightmare has catalyzed his resolve to once again work on the frontlines of safeguarding his homelands.

“It’s escalating. It’s getting worse and worse as we speak. And people still don’t seem to understand it. But I talked to the Elders, and one asked me, ‘Do you hear frogs anymore?’ Even the frogs are a big indicator of something wrong because suddenly there are no frogs in certain places… fuck that, we’re not ok with dying.”

‘What the hell is going on?’

At the meeting with the AER that evening, Lepine’s father, 74-year-old Matthew Lepine, who worked in the oil sands industry for decades, said he is well-versed in how tailings ponds work. The senior Lepine said officials knew as far back as the early 2000s that tailings ponds leak (they are designed to). Yet nothing would be done to stop the toxins from leaching into the environment. 

“You know what they (industry) told me back then? Too expensive. I said, ‘Hey, come on.’” 

Matthew wore a black ball cap that set off his white goatee — dressed like a cross between a lumberjack and a blue collar worker. 

Fort Chip Metis President Kendrick Cardinal calls for the oil sands industry to be shut down until the AER can guarantee clean drinking water be provided to people in Fort Chipewyan.

His son Lionel sat fixated beside him. The crowd remained still as the Elder continued.

“Expenses for that are cheaper than me watching my people die. I’m watching my country go to hell,” Matthew told Pusher. 

“I lived there (on the territory). I hunted and trapped there. Now there’s nothing left to trap, nothing. I can’t drink the water. I go to more funerals than I care to… sure, we’ll make money if we go to industry. But all of us have to come back home. When we come back home, there’s nothing. Nothing but filling up our graveyard and people going to the hospital. 

“What the hell is going on? We need straight answers. You had over a year to do that. If you didn’t do it in that time, I mean, what’s the use? You wasted our time.”

Applause broke out and shouts of agreement echoed across the room. 

“That’s part of what we’re trying to do as an organization, is come together, be more involved in these conversations and more proactive in the relationships we’re developing across the province so that we can better appreciate and understand your perspective and your interest, not interest, your perspective and your knowledge about these things and the way they operate,” Pusher responded. He continued to offer similar sentiments throughout the two-hour meeting that often felt more like a standoff.

But the locals attending the meeting didn’t cut Pusher any slack. Including the president of the Fort Chip Métis, Kendrick Cardinal, who had previously been tight-lipped about industry’s impacts on the village where he grew up. The tall, burly and articulate leader stunned the group with his point-blank remarks. 

Dene Elder and trapper Jean L’Hommecourt holds a up a homemade sign towards AER CEO Laurie Pusher at the March 5 meeting.

“We can’t stop it. Right now the tailings are leaking into the river,” thundered Cardinal. “So, we just live our lives because we’ve become used to it. We’ve become used to getting hush money, all our nations, all our people are bombarded with the devil’s dollar.”

His eyes grimly scanned the room. His lower lip quivered and his eyes moistened as he fought back tears. 

Cardinal is a hunter, trapper and fisherman. He’s out on the land often and teaches the way of life to his children and other youth. 

But his traditions feel doomed.

“You’re dying inside. You don’t even know it,” he pleaded with attendees. 

“It’s happening upstream from us and no dollar can stop it. Nothing will ever, ever bring back the lives of the people who died from cancer. Fort Chip is suffering and dying slowly. That’s a cold hard truth.”

He blamed the AER and others responsible, including Pusher.

“They’re going to keep on spilling. It’s going to keep on happening. How do we hold them (AER/industry) accountable? It’s time that they do their [expletive] job!”

Cardinal called for industry to be shut down, declaring that it would be a true act of reconciliation.

“We need clean drinking water. Listen to the people. Shut down the industry till we get freaking fresh water. That’s what they should do.”

Nodding at Pusher standing a few feet away, Cardinal told the crowd their efforts were in vain. Pusher wasn’t going to listen.

Kendrick Cardinal holds a shirt he made to attend the meeting on March 5 declaring Fort Chipewyan as the “largest tailings pond in Alberta.”

Pusher said in an interview with Ricochet shortly before the meeting he understands the “passion and dedication” residents feel toward protecting the environment because Fort Chipewyan is a “spectacular part of the world.”

“(The passion for) this beautiful place, this amazing lake and delta was made very, very clear to us by chief and council and president (Cardinal), and council when we first visited up here last February,” Pusher said, stressing that the AER is committed to being open and transparent with affected communities.

He said that the AER continues to monitor and test the spill site along with regularly reviewing submissions from Imperial.

“We have significant interest in and around the Kearl project in particular,” he said.

“We’ve significantly increased our expectations of Imperial to do extensive groundwater monitoring around that tailing pond so we can have a really good understanding of what may or may not be happening there. We’re conducting verification testing which is far beyond what we would normally do to be confident in the independent testing that Imperial is providing,.”

Pusher claimed the AER is sharing that data with Fort Chipeywan leadership and that it’s his priority to “slowly begin rebuilding the relationship to make sure there is nothing that isn’t available to the community.”

But an independent environmental scientist who’s worked extensively in Fort Chipewyan questions the validity of Pusher’s claims that the AER is providing consistent updates. Mandy Olsgard is a toxicologist and risk assessor who once worked for the AER, and said the regulator hasn’t provided a comprehensible update since November.

“It’s a little disingenuous to say, ‘well, we’re keeping everyone updated,’” explained Olsgard, who attended the meeting and challenged Pusher over various AER inconsistencies. 

Olsgard says the AER was publishing summaries of their findings, complete with a map, on their website up until last November. Those updates showed “there are still two exceedances of certain chemicals in the groundwater, surface water and soil that they are addressing.” 

But since November, they are only posting spreadsheets that require interpretation. 

“If you’re not a scientist, that’s hard. I think they could do a better job of communicating it, especially to the general public.”

‘They haven’t done that risk assessment’

The Kearl Mine produces about 240,000 barrels of oil per day. The leftover tailings contain dissolved substances like iron, arsenic, and naphthenic acids along with water, sand, clay, residual bitumen, and various chemicals. 

Imperial Oil states that the impact zone of the Kearl Mine covers five hectares and extends beyond the designated tailings enclosure into the surrounding boreal muskeg and water bodies. 

The water released during the first spill surpassed both federal and provincial guidelines for arsenic, sulphates, and hydrocarbons, which could include substances like kerosene, creosote, and diesel. This incident, recognized as one of the largest tailings releases in Alberta’s history, contained hazardous levels of contaminants such as naphthenic acids and arsenic.

The end of the winter road leading to Fort Chipewyan.

Scott Heckbert, AER chief environmental scientist, said he’s confident no tailings spilled from the Kearl Mine reached any nearby water bodies, including the Fire Bag River, a tributary of the Athabasca River, located three kilometres away from the spill site. He stated groundwater and soil testing results of the area haven’t shown any evidence contaminants from tailings have impacted wildlife or fish. There also haven’t been any impacts to drinking water or human health, he said.

But Olsgard again disputed those statements.

“Last Spring, Imperial and the AER both said there was no risk or no impact to humans or wildlife,” said Olsgard. “But they are just now doing the human and wildlife risk assessment. So how did they make that determination last year when they made a public statement? They hadn’t done that risk assessment (yet).”

Olsgard said she’s been lobbying officials for years to undertake studies on the human health-related impacts of the oil sands. It’s no secret that each of the 19 tailings ponds holding 1.18 trillion litres of oil sands waste are leaking, she added. But it needs to be investigated.

“In tailings-associated water, many chemicals are known as human carcinogens,” she said, noting that guidelines for monitoring tailings ponds as well as groundwater and surface water are set by the federal and provincial governments and various agencies. 

“We do regulate and manage human health because groundwater guidelines consider human drinking water. But surface water guidelines do not. There is a gap in the available surface water guidelines published by Alberta. They do not consider that humans drink untreated surface water; that the tailings ponds are leaking and leaching into the river systems.”

‘Slow, industrial genocide’

At the meeting, the discussion soon escalated into angry outbursts and shouting. 

Mercredi, the ACFN councillor who accused Pusher of overseeing “regulated murder,” said he’s fed up with the rhetoric that the AER is remorseful, and their offer of empty promises. 

It’s too late for that, he said.

“Which part of your regulations are you going to be sued for, ecocide or genocide?” hollered Mercredi, his chest puffed out and arm waving towards Pusher.

“It’s happening. Slow, industrial genocide. I said this 10 years ago. I’m saying it again! How many times? How many bodies? How many billions are you going to be making before we’re all dead? Can you calculate that? I bet you’re thinking about it right now… $11 billion surplus, $10 billion surplus? Can I keep going back or forward? Do you know what is expected? $1.2 trillion by 2030 (in profits). That’s the cost of our life. And then what? What have you done?”

ACFN chief Allan Adam, who served Pusher with the statement of claim in their $500 million lawsuit against the regulator for failing to notify his community of the leak, did not hold back in a speech that earned cheers from the crowd.

“No more of these dirty dealings will continue on our traditional territories, because we have had enough. Do you know how many times I had to stand and defend the words of you guys that said to the community that everything would be okay when I knew it was a lie?”

“We’re going to court,” ACFN Chief Allan Adam told AER CEO Laurie Pusher on March 5 at a meeting in Fort Chipewyan. The chief and his band are suing the AER for negligently handling Imperial Oil’s massive tailings pond’s spills throughout 2019-2022.

The straight-talking chief has been fighting this battle for decades. Adam, who has been ACFN’s elected chief for 16 consecutive years, became internationally recognized for speaking out about the adverse impacts of the oil sands on treaty rights, climate change, and public health. 

“I asked the same questions when I first was elected in 2002 as a council member. I asked the same questions in 2007 when we had the Alberta government and industry come here in this exact case,” he said. 

“We had nothing to stand on… And a lot of our people passed away in the community. You heard elders talk about watching their loved ones pass before them. I watched my dad take his last breath when he died of cancer. Until today, nobody gave me an answer to what had happened to him. All the questions that we’re giving you here today, you will answer in the court of law.”

Before abruptly shutting the meeting down, Pusher told Adam that he respects the democratic institutions of “Canada” and its courts.

“We will do what is right and appropriate in response to this and work our way through it,” said Pusher.

Following the meeting, Adam said the precedent-setting lawsuit puts the entire oil industry on notice.

“This year is going to rock the world for the industry,” he said.

“When they cause catastrophic environmental concerns to the community, they’re going to answer (for) it because we’re not going to take a back step anymore.”

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