The rush of the wind and sprays of water add to the thrill as Jason Castor guides his riverboat through a stretch of Lake Athabasca near Fort Chipewyan, in Treaty 8 territories. If he slows down, his boat could get stuck in the mud or even flip over because the water levels in this spot are remarkably low. He steers around buoys, dodges logs and other debris while accelerating to the mouth of the channel, which he knows should be deep enough to navigate at an average speed.

While trawling his boat further down the river, Castor points to odd-looking clusters resembling dirty foam floating by.

“There’s just a slurry of a foam that looks like oil or some kind of chemical in there,” says Castor, a 42-year-old father, construction business owner and member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN).

He’s been a traditional hunter, trapper and fisherman for nearly 20 years and has documented strange changes in the water, the land and animals.

Something’s going on in the river, he says.

“They say that it’s natural, well, I know that that’s not natural because I’ve been on the river my whole life,” he explains as he points to brown and white foam, oil sheens and other discoloured formations floating on the river..

Nowadays, it’s risky to navigate these waterways because of industrial intakes like the W.A.C. Bennett Dam to the west in B.C.; the Alberta oil sands just up the river and impacts from climate change.

In Fort Chipewyan, many in the community have noticed changes in the water. Jason Castor pulls out of the water what appears to be a slurry of a foam that looks like oil or some kind of chemical. “I know that it’s not natural because I’ve been on the river my whole life,” he says.

The Peace-Athabasca Delta is the second-largest freshwater delta in the world.

The Athabasca River, and the larger delta, also sit atop the world’s largest known reservoir of crude bitumen.

The industry that has sprung up around it drives Alberta’s and Canada’s economy, employing about 138,000 people. In 2021, crude bitumen production totaled approximately 3.3 million barrels per day. The oil sands energy sector including oil sands, conventional oil and gas, mining and quarrying is valued at about $18 billion.

But while Canada prospers off the oil sands industry, Indigenous communities downstream are dealing with its toxic impacts.

Not only are the water levels fluctuating, but the health of the water flowing through the Athabasca River is jeopardized.

Last month we released a feature documentary by Brandi Morin and Geordie Day called ‘Killer Water,’ about the impact of oil sands pollution on local Indigenous communities. You can watch it below, or find it on YouTube.

Castor stops his boat about three hours south of Fort Chipewyan where the river flows closer to the oil sands.

Castor worked as a heavy equipment operator for a major oil extraction company in the oil sands for several years. He says he became unnerved after contributing to the demolition of the land and moved back home to Fort Chipewyan.

“There was so much going on, like there’s oil trucks moving around and all the spills, and there’s always the smell of bitumen and oil and diesel, and my heart — just thinking of me working for the company, and I just got disconnected,” Castor says.

“Like, it was a point where I was only there for the money. And then I just felt sick to my stomach when I went to work. It was like, ‘what am I doing to my land? And what am I doing to the water?’”

Castor was raised in the foster care system away from Fort Chipewyan after both of his parents died while ice-fishing on Lake Athabasca when he was young. Then, nearly 20 years ago, Castor moved his wife and children back to Fort Chipewyan and did the hard work of learning a traditional lifestyle.

But he won’t allow his children to swim in the lake basin near home or in the Athabasca River — the risks are too high.

“I quit eating fish in this community. Because of the statistics, they say you can only eat like one or two fish because of the mercury and stuff like that. I know all the oil comes down, oil and gas and whatever else. I mean, they say it’s safe, but we don’t know.”

When he travels the river to pick up supplies or visit friends in Fort McMurray, he doesn’t take his hunting or fishing equipment even though there are often moose and other wildlife.

“I wouldn’t want to eat anything from there. And it’s like the animals know when you’re in that area. They know that you’re not going to hunt them…” his voice has an eerie tone as he trails off; the animals are aware the environment is poisoned, he says, and that Indigenous people won’t hunt them there.

“I quit eating fish in this community. Because of the statistics, they say you can only eat like one or two fish because of the mercury and stuff like that. I know all the oil comes down, oil and gas and whatever else.

“I mean, they say it’s safe, but we don’t know.”

Castor and other locals suspect pollution from the oil sands has been affecting them for years.

Their fears aren’t unfounded. There are documented high rates of cancer and other diseases in Fort Chipewyan with no explanation as to the source, and a recent major tailings pond spill has underscored their concerns.

In February, Indigenous communities downstream from Imperial Oil’s Kearl Mine, roughly 75 kilometres upstream of Fort Chipewyan, learned of a massive spill of 5.3 million litres from the mine’s tailings area.

Kearl is a bitumen mine capable of producing 240,000 barrels per day. The mine’s industrial operations generate wastewater, commonly referred to as tailings, which contain dissolved substances such as iron, arsenic and naphthenic acids.

These tailings contain the byproducts of the extraction process used in oil sands mining including water, sand, clay, residual bitumen and various chemicals.

The Kearl Mine impact zone covers five hectares, according to Imperial Oil. It extends well beyond the tailings enclosure designed to segregate these byproducts into nearby boreal muskeg and waterways.

The tailings water released in that spill exceeded federal and provincial guidelines for arsenic, sulphates, and hydrocarbons that may include kerosene, creosote and diesel.

This leak, named one of the largest releases of tailings in Alberta’s history, contained toxic levels of contaminants, including naphthenic acids and arsenic.

In February, Indigenous communities downstream of Imperial Oil’s Kearl mine, about 74 kilometres upstram of FC, learned of a massive spill from the mine’s tailing area. It was one of the largest releases of toxic tailings in Alberta’s history.

Fort Chipewyan’s leadership was only made aware of the toxic spill through an Environmental Protection Order issued by the Alberta Energy Regulator that called on the company to immediately contain and remediate the spill on February 6. Then in March, the Canadian Press obtained a document which showed the province stalled on initiating an emergency response for a month after it knew about the spill, until First Nations chiefs in the area went public about not being informed.

Environment and Climate Change Canada say they only learned of the incident on February 7, 2023, following the AER’s publication of the emergency order for Imperial Oil to contain the ongoing leak. Then ECCC Minister Steven Guilbeault issued a Fisheries Act directive to Imperial Oil, requiring them to take immediate action to prevent any seepage from entering fish-bearing waters because the seepage is believed to be harmful to fish.

Meanwhile, Indigenous leaders found out that another, long-term spill at the same Kearl Mine site had been leaking for at least nine months prior to the major incident in February. Even though mine employees discovered the leak and notified Imperial Oil, which in turn alerted the AER, neither told affected Indigenous communities, the public, or provincial, territorial and federal governments. They were only informed of the previous incident when the EPO was released.

The government of the Northwest Territories has also accused the Alberta government of breaching their agreement to provide timely information regarding the spills. The Athabasca River is interconnected with Lake Athabasca, which in turn supplies water to the Slave River, ultimately flowing into the Northwest Territories.

Indigenous leaders reacted to the news in anger and called for the AER to be disbanded due to an erosion of trust and policies allowing oil companies to “largely police themselves.”

Soon after the incident, Alberta’s information and privacy commissioner launched an investigation into the AER’s communication about the tailings pond leak at Imperial’s Kearl project.

The community of Fort Chipewyan, commonly referred to as Fort Chip, is in northern Alberta. It is located on the western tip of Lake Athabasca, just north of Fort McMurray. Fort Chip is only accessible by boat or plane

Privacy commissioner Diane McLeod said the OIPC will examine “whether AER had an obligation under Section 32 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIP) to disclose information to the public or others about the leak.”

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam accused Imperial Oil of covering up the spills and called the AER “a complete joke,” during a hearing in Ottawa at the House of Commons’ environment and sustainability committee investigating why it took nine months for Imperial Oil to go public about the spills.

Following those hearings, the committee launched a formal investigation into potential violations of the Fisheries Act by Imperial Oil.

The nightmare didn’t end there. Just one month after the Kearl Mine spill, Suncor reported six million litres of tailings water that exceeded sediment guidelines had been released into the Athabasca River from its Fort Hills oil sands mine.

Although Imperial Oil states its spill did not affect nearby waterways or wildlife, that contradicts the findings of the AER, which revealed that test results indicate the presence of “industrial wastewater within Waterbody 3,” a body of water that supports fish life and is situated on the northeastern boundary of Imperial’s Kearl lease. Subsequent testing of Waterbody 3 detected hydrocarbons at levels that exceeded water quality guidelines.

Imperial Oil did not respond to Ricochet’s requests for an interview.

The AER asserts that the toxicant loads fall within safe limits for the general public, but it remains unclear which specific contaminants are being tested for.

The AER declined Ricochet’s interview requests, citing the ongoing investigation into the tailings spills and its failure to inform affected communities.

However, ACFN leadership was granted access to the spill area in March. According to a press release, their findings were “worse than what anyone anticipated.”

Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.
Brandi Morin

They observed toxic water still on the ground in an unfenced, uncontained area; animal tracks leading in and out of the spill area; a single pump that had only been installed the day before in an attempt to remove the visible uncontained tailings spill; new tailings puddles forming as the temperature increased; and no barriers placed between seepage and water bodies.

It’s a battle that ACFN Chief Adam has been fighting for decades. Adam, who has been ACFN’s elected chief for almost 16 consecutive years, became internationally recognized for raising the alarm about the adverse impacts of the oil sands on treaty rights, climate change, and public health.

During an interview in September, Adam, 56, sat at a popular lookout on a rocky knoll on Lake Athabasca, wearing a traditional hide vest with Dene beaded flowers and fringe over a black and white plaid flannel shirt.

“Regardless of what government forms or what government is in place, when your back is up against a circle of a wall, try to find the curve, and I’ll put you there,” he says.

He’s referencing the irrefutable proof of who’s responsible for the tailing’s leaks — and who needs to pay up.

Leonardo DiCaprio is among the Hollywood celebrities that have visited the community to express support and stand with Chief Allan Adam.

“Right now, that’s where they’re at, and there’s nowhere for them to go. They’re trapped… by the evidence that’s there. And we will prove it.”

He says the ACFN is preparing a court case against industry and the provincial and federal governments.

“From ACFN’s point of view, how the justice scale goes, we will find out. And this is going to court. And it’s not going to look good for Canada. And it’s not going to look good for Alberta. Alberta will fight. But Canada will buckle. Because our treaty trumps everything. And we can’t allow our water to be tainted.”

Celebrities including Leonardo Dicaprio, Neil Young, Jane Fonda, director James Cameron, and activist Greta Thunberg have visited Fort Chipewyan to help amplify these concerns. In 2014, South African Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu called the oil sands “the world’s dirtiest oil,” at a press conference with Chief Adam in Fort McMurray. Tutu also said, “only those who want to be blind can’t see that we are sitting on a powder keg,” in the oil sands.
Then, in 2018, along with a coalition of other Indigenous communities, Adam announced that he wanted to buy a stake in Canada’s Trans Mountain pipeline or partner to build another future line.

“We want to be owners of a pipeline,” Adam told the CBC. “We think that a pipeline is a critical component to the oil and gas sector, especially in this region.”

He went on to say he was “tired” of the ongoing struggles with the oil industry.

“The fact is I am tired. I am tired of fighting. We have accomplished what we have accomplished. Now let’s move on and let’s start building a pipeline and start moving the oil that’s here already.”

The straight-talking leader was labeled a sellout by some people who claimed he abandoned the cause of saving the environment. Adam said he couldn’t stop the industry, prompting him to change strategies in an attempt to ensure that his community at least receives long-overdue financial compensation.

“What I did is, I went and fought for compensation for the nation because of the high rates of cancer, pollution of our waterways, the continuation of the pollution of our natural foods. Who is going to compensate us for all of that when all of this is gone?” he said in an interview with this reporter for Al Jazeera English in 2020.

Chief Allan Adam with activist and founder of the Fridays for Future movement Greta Thunberg.

But it didn’t mean he gave up caring about what happens to his homelands. He says he’s ready to battle the polluters and the governments that support them.

He believes that the resources deep beneath the surface belong to First Nations, who have never received proper compensation for being the source of Canada’s riches.

“They could be giants and walk over us and everything, but you take out their knees, they will fall,” he says bluntly, while nodding his head.

“We have legal rights, we have legal position, we have legal title, and we never ever surrendered anything.”

He wants Alberta to pay Treaty 8 nations a cut of the province’s earnings from industry profits in the oil sands. And he’s still waiting for Premier Danielle Smith to answer a text he sent her during her election campaign last spring.

“She hasn’t answered my text but I know she’s got it… I just told her straight out, like, you know, you want to continue this to go on? Well then, give us 10 per cent of all revenue sharing within Treaty 8 territory,” he says.

“That’s within fair reason. And you don’t even have to back pay us, just pay us up to date. Because I think alone within what goes out of Treaty 8, I think 10 per cent will make every Treaty 8 First Nation build a good foundation and have a perfect home.”

“They could be giants and walk over us and everything, but you take out their knees, they will fall,” he says bluntly, while nodding his head. “We have legal rights, we have legal position, we have legal title, and we never ever surrendered anything.”

Adam, along with Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billy Tuccaro, accused Smith of downplaying the tailings spills when she said they had “no effect” on local waterways or wildlife.

And, after holding back a wildfire that caused the entire community of Fort Chipewyan (which is only accessible by boat or plane), to be evacuated in May, Chief Adam is growing frustrated with the encroaching threats he believes are linked to industrial development.

“And, you know, when times like this are happening, where homes are being destroyed by wildfire and everything because of climate change, of development and everything. I raised the alarm, you know, years ago when I said that one day we’ll become environmental refugees. Where are we now?”

The CEO of Imperial Oil apologized to Canadian lawmakers in Ottawa last April for the toxic spills. Brad Corson acknowledged that the company had acted “negligently” by not sharing crucial information with neighbouring First Nation communities.

The CEO of Imperial Oil Brad Corson told the government that its spill did not impact drinking water or wildlife. However the AER’s own tests indicate evidence of industrial wastewater and other chemicals in a body of water containing fish near the mine.

The president and CEO of the AER also issued an apology saying the incidents were finally made public due to the federal environmental protection order to stop the seepage. “It is clear that neither Imperial nor the AER met community expectations to ensure they are fully aware of what is, and what was happening. And for that I am truly sorry,” Laurie Pushor told the parliamentary committee.

Imperial Oil also expressed their “regrets” to Chief Adam.

“We work hard to maintain transparent communication with our communities, and we recognize the communities’ concerns about delays in receiving additional information,” oil sands and mining vice president Jamie Long told CTV News.

“We have expressed to [Chief Adam] directly our regret that our communications did not meet the expectations of the ACFN community, we further committed to him that we are taking the necessary steps to improve our communications, so this does not happen again in the future.”

That apology doesn’t mean much, says Adam, who feels like he was strung along and purposely lied to by the company.

He pauses to look over the lake, the wind blows the waves to the shore. The light blue sky reflecting above conjures a beautiful scene of tranquility.

“When you look at your grandchildren and everything and you say, is that my legacy that’s going to continue to happen? And yet we’re watching our own grandchildren, our own kids, pass away with diseases of cancer and everything and we can’t do nothing.”

Journalist Brandi Morin interviews Chief Allan Adam

Adam is also an avid hunter, trapper and fisherman. His tone shifts as he speaks about his ailing father-in-law, Johnny Courtorielle, who was diagnosed with liver cancer.

“You know, 15 years ago, when we first brought it out to the public about what was going on here, just because nobody talks about it, it’s still going on. You know, people are still being diagnosed with cancer, but we live it because it’s our normal.”

Back in April, when he testified at the House of Commons Environment and Sustainability Committee about the impacts of the tailing spills, he learned his father-in-law’s diagnosis.

“Everything that’s here will affect people regardless of what, you know. And my father-in-law lived off the land all his life. He still goes out in the bush today. He’s 88 years old. He just came back yesterday from the bush,” he says. “And you can’t stop him. His love for the land is who he is. And like I said, it all connects together. Everything connects. The water, the land, what we eat, everything, and the people.”

Now, he and his wife are deciding whether they will move back home to Fort Chipewyan. The two currently live in Fort McMurray because it’s easier for his wife to receive medical care for her arthritis. The only way his wife travels home to Fort Chipewyan is via boat.

“My wife has to make a decision now because yesterday the doctor told us to expect one month to one year (for her father to live).”

Adam says his wife isn’t able to fly, and BC Hydro’s Site C project is currently lowering water levels in the river, making it hard for them to travel.

“My wife has to make a decision now because yesterday the doctor told us to expect one month to one year (for her father to live),” Adam says.

“So that’s a decision my wife has to take and we have to go back to McMurray to make sure that all her medication is all in place because if she comes back here, we’re isolated, and we have to make sure that the medication comes here.”

Adam knows the pain of losing relatives to cancer and disease, including his own father.

Choking up with emotion, he recalls taking a break from leadership to take care of his father before he passed. “When my dad went through this process, I had to make a decision as a chief back then. What do I do? Do I run the nation, or do I step aside? And I stepped aside for six months to spend time with my dad.”

The impacted Indigenous nations, who rely on local food sources and water, were kept in the dark about the leak for nine months. This includes members of the Mikisew Cree, the Athabasca Chipewyan and Fort McKay First Nations, the Fort Chipewyan Metis, and other downstream communities – all the way to the Northwest Territories. This means community members harvested meat, berries and other medicines from the territory, consumed fish from the water, unaware of the risk of contamination.
Brandi Morin

Growing up, Adam says the land and water were pure. He described the lake and riverways as the family’s “deep freeze,” that was “fresh daily,” and says he’d eat locally harvested meat and fish in abundance. These days he’s cautious about the number of fish he consumes.

“I think within a year I take maybe four fish. And yet fish is [supposed to be] the healthiest thing that you could eat.”

The water, a source of life, should sustain and nourish his community like it did for thousands of years for his ancestors.

Not anymore. It’s a “killer” he says. And after the community learned of the tailings spills everyone threw their harvested meat and fish into the trash.

“I said, ‘would you feed it to your own dog?’ No, we’ll throw it away,” the Elders were especially upset, he says.

“Yeah, we’re scared. I’ll say that for a fact.”

“The innocent killer. Looks so beautiful, but yet, it’s a killer.”

He motions to the scenery before him. The water shimmers under the golden rays of the sun, as the trees of the lush boreal forest hug the rocky banks.

“The innocent killer. Looks so beautiful, but yet, it’s a killer,” his eyebrows raise with bewilderment.

It’s a situation he finds ironic. Almost 80 per cent of people who live in Fort Chipewyan consume traditional foods and medicines harvested from the land and water. But the rights of Indigenous Peoples to have access to those ways of life are being eroded.

“It’s (water) supposed to provide life for our people, for everybody, but what about down from here, downstream, and it continues on going down, and nobody listens to the people and the stories that are coming from the north. And how many people from the north are continuing to have the same illnesses, the same sicknesses that we have.”

A cluster of cancers

Dr. John O’Connor who worked as a physician in Fort Chipewyan for nearly 16 years, alerted officials about heightened rates of both rare and common cancers. He was cleared of accusations made against him in 2009 of raising “undue alarm” by the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta. In the same year, the Alberta Cancer Board conducted a study that revealed cancer rates in Fort Chipewyan were, in fact, about 30 per cent higher than expected.

O’Connor, who now practices in Fort McKay First Nation and Fort McMurray, said he noticed a disproportionate number of sicknesses in his patients in Fort Chipewyan not long into his practice.

“Within the first couple of years, it was sort of apparent to me that this community of 1,200 people had a lot of illness,” he says.

“And then as I got to know the community more and the trust was established, it dawned on me that this was quite a shock — cancer and autoimmune diseases of a type and a number that I really wasn’t seeing in my large practice in Fort McMurray.”

Many community members remember a time when they could drink the water directly from the river. Now that would be unthinkable.
Brandi Morin

He also made the connection that the majority of the locals live traditional lifestyles; meaning they consume the water, fish and meat from the land, and that could be the source of the higher rates of cancer and disease.

“They hunted, fished, trapped, and gathered. You know, they couldn’t afford the food at the Northern store, some did, and obviously for some of the food they had to go there. But they were very well established, very self-contained and contented. So, it made it all the more sort of alarming for me that I would see this.”

When he tried to forewarn the medical industry and governments about his findings, he says he was accused of “stirring up trouble.” He thinks his findings were purposely swept under the rug.

“As years went by, it sort of dawned on me that this was probably preconceived. This is something that was already in the vocabulary in their (industry, governments) lexicon, and I just happened to touch a raw nerve with them, because there was no undue alarm,” he says.

“The facts were there for all to see. Documented, not just by me, but by the provincial health authority and by the feds themselves. They were obviously hiding something. They were protecting big oil, big fossils.”

He’s not surprised about the latest tailings leaks, and points out the oil sands tailings have been leaking for decades.

Various reports, including a 2020 report released by Environmental Defence, based on the oil industry’s own reporting methods, found that Syncrude’s Aurora Settling Basin tailing pond has been leaking about 39.25 million litres per year since it began operating 20 years ago. The