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Report: Alberta Oil Sands Contaminate Wild Food, Give Aboriginals Cancer

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The Alberta oil sands are contaminating the wild food downstream in Fort Chipewyan with toxic metals, causing elevated cancer rates among residents, particularly members of the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations, according to a report released Monday by the University of Manitoba’s Environmental Conservation Lab.

Of 94 study participants, 23 had cancer. "Cancer occurrence increased significantly with participant employment in the oilsands and with the increased consumption of traditional foods and locally caught fish," said the report.

The report, Environmental and Human Health Implications of Athabasca Oil Sands, is the result of three years of research by two Alberta First Nations and University of Manitoba scientists, funded by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

Higher than normal levels of industrial heavy metals, like arsenic, mercury and cadmium, have been found in wild-caught foods like moose, duck, muskrat and beaver, posing concerns for both children and adults. 

"It's time the government does something," said Steve Courtoreille, chief of the Mikisew Cree Nation. "The reality is our people are dying."

Growing fears about wild food contamination have led most First Nations people to abandon their dietary customs for store-bought food. 

“I don’t know what it is that they’re hiding. What’s causing these cancers? Why is it so hard that they cannot take it out of their production, so it’s not hurting anyone or killing anyone?” asked Chief Steve Courtereille of the Mikisew Cree First Nation at an Edmonton press conference, reported the Vancouver Observer.

Below is a trailer for One River Many Relations; the documentary explores the Athabasca Oil Sands from an marginalized and often silenced perspective of communities that live downstream.

Deep distrust of local governments and health officials compelled the First Nations to fund the recent study, the Vancouver Observer reports. 

“One thing most striking… is that both province and federal governments refuse to do anything about [the high rates of cancer]. Even though the pressure is escalating,” said ACFN Chief Allan Adam to the Observer. 

"These communities are facing a double–bind," said Dr. Stéphane McLachlan, who headed the team that prepared the report. "On one hand, industry, notably the Oil Sands, cause a decline in the health of the environment and ultimately of community members. On the other hand, the existing health care infrastructure is unable to address these declines in human health. The communities are caught in the middle, and the impacts are clear and worrisome."

In April, Alberta’s chief medical officer Dr. James Talbot conceded cancer clusters are abnormal in the area, particularly of bile duct and cervical cancer, and nearly lung cancer, reported

Among other health problems First Nations people in the region suffer are miscarriages, lupus and skin abscesses, which they attribute to the degradation of the traditional food they hunt and harvest. Beyond their health, "local traditional economies like fishing and fur trading have been decimated by industrial pollution and widespread habitat destruction, leaving many residents with no other option but to seek employment in the local oil sands mines. Today, the indigenous bands in northern Alberta are no longer able to safely sustain themselves off the land that has nurtured their lives for centuries," states, a dedicated group of photojournalists who are committed to the documentation of injustice and inequities that exist environmentally, socially, culturally and politically in Canada and abroad.