Indigenous communities in northern Alberta and the Northwest Territories say they’re losing faith in federal and provincial environmental monitoring in the tar sands/oil sands, after The Canadian Press revealed earlier this week that this year’s field research program will sustain a funding cut of about 25%.
“I am so angry at this because it’s something we’ve been talking about for a long time with different governments and with industry,” said Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith’s Landing First Nation, on the NWT-Alberta border. “I’m losing faith in the ability of governments to protect our people.”
“The decision to halt monitoring goes against years of prior negotiations on agreements focused on co-management,” Keepers of the Water added in a release. “Agreements that include resources that would allow Indigenous peoples to properly monitor their lands and territories. This Indigenous oversight would allow for the continued development of policies needed for the provision of environmental protections.”
After the CP story broke, Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson set off a Twitter storm when he explained the budget cut, from C$58 million in 2019/2020 to $44 million this year, was just a reflection of field work that had been curtailed by the coronavirus pandemic. “There will be a bit less spending this year on some of the monitoring activities but it’s simply a function of the fact that, for a third of the season, we couldn’t send people out into the field,” Wilkinson added Wednesday, in an interview with CBC in Edmonton. “It’s important for all Canadians to know that we’re managing resources in a responsible way and ensuring that pollution is not happening,” he said, and that funding will be restored to normal levels next year.
But the CP story identified several specific monitoring programs that have been cut completely, including monitoring on the main branch of the Athabasca River downstream from the tar sands/oil sands, field studies on wetlands, fish, and insects, a pilot project to assess the risks posed by tar sands/oil sands tailings ponds, and water quality assessments in Wood Buffalo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
While the NWT government said it hadn’t noticed any changes in water quality along the Slave River, which runs downstream from the tar sands/oil sands, between March and June, “the traditional territory of Smith’s Landing First Nation is full of wetlands that used to teem with fish, frogs, and other types of wildlife that band members relied on,” CBC writes. “Now, Cheezie said his members find deformed fish with soft, oily skin in their waters—a direct result of oilsands pollution.”
“We rely on [wildlife] for food, for medicines, for spiritual sustenance,” he said. “Slowly but surely, the oilsands pollution is killing our people.”
Zoe Guile, conservation coordinator with the NWT Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, said funding cuts for environmental health studies could have a serious impact on communities. “If these insects and animals living in this water are…experiencing health issues, then that’s just a really big red flag that that water isn’t safe for people anymore,” she told CBC.