First Nation Struggle to Maintain Environmental Sustainability

The Keepers of the Water gather to find an end to the ecological threats against the water and land that sustains them.

by Dawn Paley

Fish that had once been healthy are turning up diseased and deformed. Water that had once been clean to drink is making people and animals sick.Older people started to notice that the temperature was changing, and the landscape too.

This might sound like a familiar urban refrain, as suburbs and sky­scrapers encroach on the biosphere. But the cry for help to protect these valuable resources isn’t coming from a city: it is coming from the far north, from an area often referred to as “pris­tine.”

For thousands of years, indige­nous Dene and Cree peoples sustained themselves from the lands along the mighty Deh Cho, also called the Mackenzie River, by hunting caribou, game, and birds, and fishing.

Today, the ancestral lands of the Dene and Cree people, and the rivers and lakes that nourish them, are under threat.

In 2006, a group of Indigenous Dene and Cree elders living in the Mackenzie River Basin got together to talk about continuing threats to their water and land. This historic gathering would start a process to protect rivers and lakes throughout the region, which includes the north­ernmost parts of BC, Alberta, Sas­katchewan, Manitoba, as well as an important swath of the Northwest Territories.

The Keepers of the Water is unique in that the organization doesn’t operate out of a head office in Edmon­ton or Toronto; instead, it is an alli­ance of native and non-native people who live in remote and rural areas in the Mackenzie River Basin. This pushes the organization to look at all of the sources of threats to their water, instead of working on more limited issue-based campaigns.

“In addition to the tar sands, we have uranium mining, we have hydro dams up-river, Site C, we have pulp mills on our river, so you know we have a lot of struggles here,” said Har­vey Scott, a retired professor of out­door education from the University of Alberta, who volunteers with the Keepers.

At the first gathering in Liidlii Kui, Denendeh/Fort Simpson in 2006, elders, together with indigenous youth and communities and non-native al­lies, agreed to a declaration, called the Keepers of the Water Declaration. At its heart, the declaration stated that water “is not a commodity to be bought or sold. All people share an obligation to cooperate to ensure that water in all of its forms is protected and conserved with regard to the needs of all living things today and for future generations tomorrow.”

The following year, elders and al­lies gathered for the second Keepers of the Water conference, which took place in Fort St. John, an area where land-based people have felt deep im­pacts from large hydroelectric proj­ects. The third conference took place in Fort Chipewyan, an area known as “ground zero” because of high levels of contamination downstream from the Alberta tar sands.

The fourth Keepers gathering took place in August of 2010, at the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Na­tion, which is adjacent to the hamlet of Wollaston Lake, Saskatchewan.

To get to the gathering, some par­ticipants flew in by bush plane. Others braved a long drive from Saskatoon to La Ronge, entering into a landscape of boreal forest and wetlands as they traveled 400 kilometres by gravel road from La Ronge up to the edge of Wollaston Lake.

A persistent and fierce rain opened and closed the five-day con­ference, keeping most of the nearly 600 people in attendance near the high school where the event took place. Many participants were from the local community; others were el­ders flown in from outlying Dene and Cree communities, while still others were indigenous activists and non-native supporters from across North America.

According to Rita Wong, a Van­couver-based poet and activist who was present at Keepers IV, the confer­ence schedule was fluid like the water they’re trying to protect. “A one-hour elders’ panel on the conference sched­ule spontaneously expanded into over eight-and-a-half hours of testimony over two days, as 23 elders spoke movingly of how important water is, how cancer caused by mining has killed many family mem­bers, how uranium mining and tar sands expansion is poisoning the land,” she wrote on

Many of the pre­sentations took place in the Denesuline language with translation to Eng­lish. (Participants who came into the community from elsewhere noted that the vast majority of com­munity members in Hatch­et Lake were fluent in their own language.)

The Elders Speak

Each of the confer­ence participants inter­viewed for this story said that without a doubt, the most powerful part of the gathering was having the chance to hear first hand testimonies from the Cree and Dene elders from remote communi­ties.

“It’s not like it used to be, the spring­time, birds flying, all kinds of birds, ducks, flocks and flocks of them, today there’s hardly any,” said Pat­rick Campbell, an elder from English Lake First Nation in a presentation during the gathering.

“We need to wake up now. I’m speaking from the heart, because it’s very important for our young people, we can’t depend on Indian affairs, we’re always talking about the gov­ernment. Let’s govern ourselves!”

The urgency in Campbell’s voice showed the determination and resil­ience of the elders who made the orig­inal push to form the Keepers.

“No more crying, no more plead­ing, no more meetings, let’s get to­gether and stand together and fight for our water and fight for our right, fight for our water, our land,” said Ms. Scanie, a Dene elder, in a speech from the confer­ence floor. “Everything be­longs to us, we never gave it up. We never ever gave it up. Stand with me, stand together, let’s stand together and say No More,” she said.

The Tar Sands

Part of the reason the Keepers’ gatherings are so powerful is because they are rooted in local struggles. Many of the affected communities can follow today’s renewed push to mine and dam their land back to a single source: the tar sands.

More than half of the energy generated from the proposed Site C Dam planned for the Peace region is slated to go towards powering natural gas extraction, which itself would be used to extract bitumen from the tar sands. The renewed interest in ura­nium in northern Saskatchewan could be connected to the tar sands as well, as advocates of nuclear power indicate they’ve invented portable reactors that could power the energy intensive ex­traction process.

The extractive industries not only require massive amounts of energy, but also suck huge volumes of water. All of these elements together indi­cate that what’s behind the latest push from corporations in the south for re­sources in northwestern Canada is the extraction of mock oil from the tar sands.

It is ura­nium mining that is of particular con­cern in Wollaston Lake, home of the fourth Keepers gathering. This hamlet has a population of 1,200, most of whom are Athabascan Dene­suline people who have lived in the re­gion since time immemorial. Denesu­line people are also known as Ethen-eldeli, or “Caribou Eaters,” since the caribou makes up an essential part of their diet and customs.

Freshly killed wild animals, also called “country food,” are important in the Denesuline diet to this day: the Keepers gathering at Wollaston featured an all-you-can-eat Dene buf­fet featuring caribou, whitefish, and ducks. Participants in the conference would choose their own cut of meat and gather around one of three large barbeques while their meal sizzled on the grill.

Wollaston Lake was first settled as a trading post, perched on the edge of its namesake, a large lake dotted with islands. The Hatchet Lake Re­serve is adjacent to the hamlet, its res­idents party to Treaty 10 and members of the Prince Albert Grand Council.

Treaty 10 has long been disputed: the government insists that it con­strains Denesuline land-ownership to the reserve, while community mem­bers exert their right to hunt, fish and trap throughout the region. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Denesuline people settled year round in the Wol­laston region.

Uranium Mining

The remote community is only accessible by ice-road in the winter, when the lake has frozen over. But even though they’re physically isolat­ed, the people at Wollaston Lake have made headlines before, notably by blockading an access road to the Rab­bit Lake uranium mine in June 1985.

Since the 1960s, Dene territory has been home to six major uranium producing areas: Uranium City, Rab­bit Lake, Collins Bay, Cluff Lake, Key Lake, and Cigar Lake.

The closest project to Wollaston is the Rabbit Lake mine. Production at the site started in 1975 and uranium milling began in 1980. The mill is the oldest in Saskatchewan, and has repeatedly been found in violation of environmental regulations. Accord­ing to a report by the Centre for Ab­original Health Research, in the 10 years between 1981 and 1991, there were 191 spills from the Rabbit Lake, Cluff Lake, and Key Lake mines; not once was the community at Wollaston informed.

Impacts from uranium mining in the area started with uranium explo­ration, says Jamie Kneen, from Min­ingWatch Canada, who lived in the community of Wollaston Lake for two years in the late 1980s. He says the older mines especially have contrib­uted to higher than permissible levels of radioactive materials in water bod­ies in the area.

“It depends on how you measure it, but there is something like a quar­ter of the world’s uranium supply in northern Saskatchewan right now,” said Kneen. “They’re also the highest grades, in some of these places you have an average of 20 per cent pure uranium.”

From 1975 to 2009, the Rabbit Lake mine produced almost 180 mil­lion pounds of uranium, and today is the second largest uranium mill in the world. Rabbit Lake is operated by Ca­meco, a company that produces 16 per cent of the world’s uranium.

“I would say [the uranium opera­tions are] being fairly well managed,” said Kneen. “We have this experi­mental tailings disposal that they’re using, that may or may not work in a century or two, and that’s why the Dene people keep making the point that they’ll be there after the industry shuts down,” he said.

Kneen says industry plans to keep the Rabbit Lake and the Key Lake mill operating for at least the next 30-40 years. “There are at least three new mines in various stages of development at this point, all in this same area around Wollaston Lake, near Rabbit Lake and Key Lake,” he said.

The fact that the community at Wollaston has had serious concerns stemming from this massive uranium exploitation shaped the entire focus of the conference.

“At this gathering, the focus was more so on mining issues, uranium mining legacy issues on the Cree and Dene communities of Northern Sas­katchewan,” said Clayton Thomas Muller, from the Indigenous Environ­mental Network.

Thomas Muller pointed out that there was some controversy surround­ing the decision of conference orga­nizers to allow Cameco and French uranium giant Areva Resources to become sponsors of the event.

“It was controversial, compared to the previous three gatherings, and this of course was due to the fact that one of the sponsors of the gathering was one of the local uranium mining companies,” said Thomas Muller. He attributed the decision to seek corpo­rate sponsorship to the fact that the community had an outbreak of H1N1the year before, forcing them to cancel the 2009 gathering and causing some of their funds to dry up.

The presence of Cameco repre­sentatives at the gathering also made some participants uneasy. “It was di­visive for all of those that have his­torically supported the Keepers of the Water movement,” said Muller.

Regardless, a keynote address by Dr. Manuel Pino, an acclaimed Pueblo scholar who has studied the impacts of uranium on his community, helped frame the debate over the weekend. Pino’s speech, focused on the costs of uranium, was rooted in his studies and the experience of his people, who are struggling to maintain their land-based culture in the uranium-rich US Southwest.

Water Ties

For Roland Woodward, a Cree man who lives near Fort McMurray, water pollution is the key similarity between the problems facing tar sands affected communities in northern Alberta and people in Saskatchewan who live near the uranium mines.

“When our dikes leak, we have seepage into the rivers from the tar sands,” said Woodward. “When their dikes leak, they have seepage into the rivers and lakes from uranium mines.”

Woodward, who is a co-chair of the Keepers of the Water, noted that organizers of Keepers IV handed out water bottles and drank water from the lake. He said that the people in Wollaston were proud that they could still drink the water from the Lake, unlike the communities nearer to the tar sands, whose water is too contami­nated to drink.

Recognizing water as a sacred el­ement is another value that traditional indigenous peoples throughout the vast northern region share.

“Right from the time you’re con­ceived, [you’re] in water, then you’re floating in water for the next nine months. That’s why we say that water is so sacred, because it is life,” said Marie Adam, a Dene elder and member of Keepers of the Water who grew up in northern Saskatchewan.

When Adam was a child, her father would remind her to make an of­fering to Lake Athabasca each time they went out by boat. “My father used to say… Don’t ever think you are greater than the lake itself, than the water, because you never know what can happen,” she said. “Our people never messed around with water, we had a lot of respect for water.”

The resolutions that came out of the Keepers IV conference reflected both the teaching of the elders, as well as the urgent need for action. They called on all levels of government to honour their obligations and respon­sibilities towards indigenous peoples, and to review the laws and regulations governing the extractive industries. A new council was created, called the Northern Saskatchewan Watershed Council, to monitor watersheds in the north of the province.

Elders also passed a resolution, which restated that they “oppose the harmful actions that have transpired by industry and call upon and em­power our young people and elected leaders to embrace traditional knowl­edge and take action that guides us in a new direction.”

Keepers Network

Between the annual gatherings that have become the hallmark of the Keepers of the Water, the network and its members stay active in defense of the earth. Divided into five chapters, or “communities,” – Denendeh, NWT; the Peace, BC; the Athabasca, AB; and one each in Saskatchewan and Mani­toba, Keepers from throughout the region do outreach and organizing at their own pace, in their own style.

“One of the key things that we’re doing is spreading the news across remote, rural, native Canada that it’s okay to speak out, it’s okay to express your concerns,” said Harvey Scott, who is also co-chair of the organization.

In 2008, the Athabasca group, which is among the most active in the organi­zation, carried out an 11 community tour about water issues, visiting indig­enous, Métis, and settler communities along the Athabasca River. They also organized community meetings and smaller regional gatherings through­out the year. In August of 2010, mem­bers of the Keepers were involved with organizing a 13 kilometre heal­ing walk, led by indigenous elders, that wound through the devastated lands around Fort McMurray that make up the “ground zero” of the tar sands.

To build a movement it is vital to ensure that there is trust, especially between communities and groups that have had divisions and disagreements in the past. This work isn’t always ob­vious to outsiders, but it’s a big part of the year round activities of the Keep­ers.

The work of the Keepers may be perceived as moving slowly com­pared to that of larger environmental non-governmental organizations, but this is because the group isn’t a well-funded, well-oiled machine. Instead, on each policy decision and along every step of the way, there is a se­rious effort to encourage grassroots community members to take the lead in the decision-making process. The yearly gatherings are a big part of the way the organization stays grounded and true to its roots: no amount of emailing or telephone calls can have the same impact and urgency as face-to-face encounters.

Indeed, the need for a strong, grassroots and anti-colonial indige­nous-led movement in defense of the land becomes more important as the corporate drive to get oil from the tar sands – with all of the ramifications that has for the entire Dene region – intensifies.

The next Keepers of the Water gathering will be held in Lac Brochet, a remote Dene community in northern Manitoba, from August 10-14, 2011.


Dawn Paley is a freelance jour­nalist based in Vancouver. You can follow her on Twitter@dawn_

[From WS November/December 2010]

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