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 www.rabble.ca.
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.
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.
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.”
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_