WASHINGTON — An aboriginal man from the Northwest Territories believes he captured the attention of Washington decision-makers this week by explaining how he brings his own drinking water when he canoes because pollution from Alberta’s oilsands has fouled once-pristine rivers.
Francois Paulette said he used the anecdote to drive home the message that the oilsands may be a secure source of energy for the United States, but are contributing to climate change and hurting people, animals, birds and fish.
“There are a multitude of downstream effects by the tarsands and we are feeling it,” Paulette, a member of the Smith’s Landing Treaty 8 First Nation, said from the U.S. capital Wednesday. “Now when I travel the river I have to bring fresh drinking water.”
Paulette, who is a Dene, and George Poitras, former chief of the Mikisew Cree in northern Alberta, met with officials from the U.S. State Department, the White House Council on Environmental Quality and the Department of the Interior. They also discussed their experiences with the staff of congressional representatives and non-governmental organizations.
The visitors spoke of vanishing caribou and high cancer rates among some First Nations people and called on the Americans to not approve the proposed TransCanada Corp. (TSX:TRP) Keystone XL pipeline that would ship 900,000 barrels a day of oilsands oil into the U.S.
Poitras said it’s vital that the U.S government and public hear the perspective of aboriginal people to balance a message coming from the Alberta and Canadian governments and the energy industry on both sides of the border.
Alberta says it strictly regulates how the oilsands affect land, water and people. The province also says it supervises and strictly limits the amount of water projects use and monitors air quality. It also requires that companies have to restore any land used for tailings ponds.
The energy industry says it complies with all regulations and is spending millions of dollars to develop cleaner technology.
Some of the Americans they met were clearly not aware of how the projects are affecting First Nations people, Poitras said.
“What they really genuinely appreciate is hearing for the first time the perspective from the indigenous people who are being impacted the most and have the most at stake,” he said.
“Often they are not aware of the health issues, the cancers, the water quality issues, the repeated violations of treaty rights by virtue of the continued expansion of the tarsands.”
Tom Huffaker of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers agreed it’s important for Washington to hear how First Nations feel, but took exception to some of the critics’ points.
Huffaker said the level of chemicals in the water downstream of the oilsands is below safe drinking water standards. He also said the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the industry has been reduced by 40 per cent since the 1990s and is only a fraction of what is produced by the U.S. coal-fired generating plants.
There are also aboriginal communities in the oilsands region that support the industry.
“There are people in Fort McKay and Prairie Chipewyan who are in fact very, very supportive of oilsands development and feel like it has benefited their communities greatly,” he said from Calgary.