Aboriginal leaders in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., hope a conference on water quality that began Friday will unite First Nations and environmental activists in lobbying governments to protect the Athabasca River watershed.

Delegates from across Western Canada, and even as far afield as Washington state, began the three-day Keepers of the Water conference Friday morning in Fort Chipewyan.

"Unity among First Nations and also every environmental group there is — there's a lot of them here. We've come together," said Athabasca-Chipewyan elder Pat Marcel.

"I feel so great about this. It's going to shake the governments when they realize just how powerful this movement is."

Fort Chipewyan is about 300 kilometres downstream along the Athabasca River from Fort McMurray, where much of Alberta's major oilsands work is taking place.

Many in Fort Chipewyan, a remote First Nations community of roughly 1,200, have said they have noticed a difference in the quality of their water, and in the health of people and wildlife in the area.

In June, Health Canada and the Alberta Cancer Board said they would launch a study into reports of high incidences of colon, liver, blood and bile-duct cancers in Fort Chipewyan — cancers that residents have long claimed are tied to oilsands development.

It's the third time aboriginal and environmental activists are meeting at the annual Keepers of the Water conference, which began in 2006 in Fort Simpson, N.W.T.

Harvey Scott, founder of the Athabasca River Alliance, said the two groups can create a formidable alliance.

"We're trying to shake both levels of government, federal and provincial, and say, 'Look, this isn't right. You're basically sacrificing this part of the earth and these people. We're not going to stand for it anymore,'" he said.

Some delegates, including First Nations leaders, met privately Thursday, in advance of the conference.

Chief Albert Mercredi of the Fond du Lac First Nation in Saskatchewan said they are developing a plan to pressure governments to protect the Athabasca watershed.

"I would like to see all levels of government … move forward and start the consulting with aboriginal peoples on industry and development, so that aboriginal people are not pushed off to the side going into the 21st century," Mercredi said.