Angry residents of a northern Alberta community confronted officials with Suncor Energy Inc. Tuesday night, saying the company's exploitation of oilsands is contaminating local drinking water.
Suncor representatives had been invited to Fort Chipewyan for a public meeting to explain how some of the company's treated sewage got discharged from the Fort McMurray oilsands into the Athabasca River on several occasions.
But before the meeting even started, Fort Chipewyan residents mounted emotional challenges against Suncor, reflecting the rage and fear people have about water quality in the mostly aboriginal community of 900, located on the western shore of Lake Athabasca about 200 kilometres north of Fort McMurray.
"It's difficult to respond right now. There's a lot of emotion in the room," Suncor director Brenda Erskine told CBC News at Tuesday's meeting. "I'm hopeful that we can get to a better place. I don't like to leave a community that's feeling this powerless."
"I'm hoping that at least there will be some suggestions that were made tonight that we can work on together and [that] the community will feel like they're in a better place, perhaps next year or a few years from now," she said.
Aboriginal leaders willing to go to court over issue
But Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said his community wants Suncor and other oilsands companies to address the concerns now, not in several years' time.
"We're tired of all these issues that are being hidden behind closed doors, and we will no longer stand for it," Adam said.
"We're going to bring everything out into the open, and we feel that we have every right to do so. If industry wants to be a player in this region, they have to start answering to all the questions that we are saying here. They have to be responsible for their actions."
Adam said his First Nation, along with the Mikisew Cree First Nation, also based in Fort Chipewyan, are prepared to go to the Supreme Court of Canada and argue that the federal government has failed to protect their treaty rights to clean water.
Suncor officials told residents the company is meeting the necessary regulatory requirements, with some exceptions. The company's water licence to operate in the Fort McMurray oilsands was extended to 2017.
That did not reassure residents like Deanna Courtoureille, who said she is afraid to bathe her one-year-old daughter with tap water.
"Soon as I bring her home, it's straight bottled water," she said. "A couple of times I had no choice because there [was] no water in the store, and I had to boil the water. I didn't just boil it once. I boiled it five, six times."
Adam pointed out that even the Suncor officials came to Fort Chipewyan carrying their own bottled water — evidence they are aware of contamination in the community's water, he said.
"Our livelihood is at stake here, and not only First Nations people, but we're fighting for human beings in general that are at risk from all the contaminants that are going downstream," he said.