Reporter’s Notebook: Angela Sterritt on the oilsands paradox

Reporting on a tiny community downstream from Alberta’s Athabasca oilsands was one of the hardest stories I have worked on in my life.

Reporting on a tiny community downstream from Alberta’s Athabasca oilsands was one of the hardest stories I have worked on in my life.

It was not the 200 kilometre drive to Fort Chipewyan on the ice road, infamously known as the "roller coaster.” Nor was it the blistering 50-below cold, nor the fact that government officials who constituted half my story didn’t show up. It was coming to terms with the reality that Fort Chip would not fit neatly into the black and white narrative of oilsands activists verses oilsands developers.

What I found was not a community rife with conflict but one rich with complexity with an investment in the environment, treaty rights, human rights and the economy.

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation elders told me they used to run between huge white spruce trees as children, but those timbers were cleared for oil production.

Some, like Alice Rigney witnessed the oilsands deposits in Alberta bloom to the size of New York state. A survivor of cancer, Rigney believes the oilsands are in part to blame for the high rates of cancer in the community. She also worries the fish are too toxic to eat, that wild game has been pushed out and the kids are no longer able to swim in the water, since the boon of big oil.

But the oilsands are a hard resource to ignore in Fort Chipewyan.
Fort Chipewyan is located downstream of the Alberta oilsands. (Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers)

While driving through the snowy community to cover a highly anticipated cancer report, I found it hard to avoid the pervasive presence of the oilsands companies there. The school, the elders centre, the health centre are all sponsored by oil companies like Shell, Syncrude and Suncor. Many people who had grave concerns about the oilsands were also somehow profiting or in partnership with them. But the more I spoke with the community the more I realized that situation could not be narrowly interpreted.

“It’s a real challenge, what other resources do we have here?” Rigney told me sitting beside her wood stove in Fort Chipewyan. “We don't have trapping, we don't have fishing, tourism is a far shot. We were in tourism my husband and I— and our slogan was “Alberta's best kept secret.” We had people from Europe coming but now they don't because we are downstream from the dirtiest, filthiest project on earth.”

To my surprise, many in Fort Chip blamed the environmental movement that campaigned against the fur trade, bringing down the price or fur, for the situation they are in now — thrust into what they refer to as a monolithic oilsands economy they are now largely dependent on.
(Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Raymond Cardinal started working for ACDEN — the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s business arm — in 2009. The group of companies works with the oilsands industry, holding contracts with most of the major players. But his words echo those who are battling the oil giants.

“All we are saying is find the technology to make it safer, because the way things are being developed, they have the tailings that are leaking into the Athabasca. We have been telling industry for years to try to clean that up or try to find a different way to clean it up, slow production down until you can find another way to make it safe.”

Cardinal, like others working with oil companies, was just as concerned about treaty and environmental rights as he was about providing for his family. Some feel that by working within, change can be influenced much more than by holding placards on the outside.

On the flip side, oilsands activists like Alice Rigney were just as focused on having a prosperous future for their children as they were on environmental sustainability — searching for solutions that involve renewable energies and back to the land youth programs.

There is no single conclusion to this story as it continues to develop and transform but the takeaway for me is that the people in Fort Chipewyan are not just sitting on the sidelines. They are taking part in an economy that was essentially created in their backyard without their consent, and working hard to participate in it, and imagine a life without it, to effect changes for the future generations.

The last thing I learned, and maybe the most important, is that there are currently no oilsands projects within Fort Chipewyan. Community members have created a no expansion zone in some regions and continue to hold governments and industry accountable.


Angela Sterritt

CBC Reporter

Angela Sterritt is a journalist from the Gitxsan Nation. Sterritt's news and current affairs pieces are featured on national and local CBC platforms. Her CBC column 'Reconcile This' tackles the tensions between Indigenous people and institutions in B.C. Have a story idea?