In a never-before-seen partnership, the aboriginal communities around Fort McKay will work with the government of Alberta over the next few years to study health in communities downstream from the oil sands.
The agreement, made public September 29 in a letter of intent, is between the Fort McKay First Nation, Fort McKay Métis Community, Alberta Health and Wellness and Alberta Aboriginal Relations, Postmedia News reported. It’s unique partly because the study will be driven by the First Nations, with Alberta Health playing a supporting role, the newspaper Fort McMurray Today reported.
“Our Chief and Council, in partnership with leadership from the Fort McKay Métis Community, have expressed for quite some time now that there is a great need to conduct a health assessment study of our community," said Raymond Powder, deputy chief of the Fort McKay First Nation, according to CBC News. "We need to better understand the state of our people’s health, and how the environment around us is impacting our health, not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually."
This would be the first time the province has studied an entire community’s health, CBC News said. Working together, the groups will interview residents of 600-population Fort McKay to gauge health priorities and create new programs if necessary, Postmedia News said.
The Athabasca Oil Sands and pipelines emanating from it have been the subject of numerous protests over the past several months. Controversy has been especially heated over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would wend its way from the oil sands down to the Gulf of Mexico through indigenous territory. Hundreds have been arrested in protests in Washington, D.C., and Ottawa.
John O'Connor, a doctor who was ridiculed several years ago for drawing attention to what he said were higher cancer rates in the region, told Fort McMurray Today that the studies will involve both a long-term study of all aspects of health, and a shorter-term look at Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan and the possible effects of environmental changes on their health.
"It's been too long coming, but now they've agreed and we have it quite clearly from them, it's good. I'm happy. I'm happy this is going to start and it's going to be firmly in the hands of First Nations' control,” he told the newspaper, “every aspect, the methodology, the terms of reference, but with the co-operation and support of Alberta Health, and because it's on-reserve issues, Health Canada will be in a supportive role as well."