The impact of the oilsands in northern Alberta

About 23,000 Indigenous people live in the oilsands region.
Closeup of a bucketwheel reclaimer at oilsands mines of Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Photo: iStock

The oilsands industry continues to harm the climate and the lives of Indigenous people. 

The Alberta government has repeatedly downplayed the environmental consequences, and instead has touted the industry’s economic contribution.

But this comes at the expense of Indigenous people’s health. About 23,000 Indigenous people live in the oilsands region in northeast Alberta, according to 2016 data from the federal government. Many inhabitants contend that the oilsands are having a “deleterious effect” on the environment and their health. Some of the effects they’ve observed include changes to the quantity and quality of both drinking water and food supplies like fish.

Below Annysa Baldeo talks about how the oilsands industry is compromising the physical and mental health of Indigenous people, and how it’s contributing to the erosion of Indigenous culture. 

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Annysa Baldeo

Annysa Baldeo discusses the impact of the oilsands industry on Indigenous communities.

My name is Annysa Baldeo. My pronouns are they/them and I am from Edmonton, Alberta. 

I see environmental racism as a form of systemic racism, where the harmful consequences of environmental exploitation and pollution are disproportionately harming marginalized BIPOC communities. These impacts include harming their culture, their health, the land and truly their survival on this planet. 

One example in so-called Alberta includes the impacts of the oilsands on Indigenous communities in northern Alberta.

The folks in these communities, they’re seeing the impacts, they’re seeing less fish in their rivers, they’re seeing oily residues in their rivers, and the people are experiencing really high rates of cancer. And they believe it’s because they are situated incredibly close to these oilsands. And I think it’s pretty wild because assessments have been done to determine whether or not these issues were caused by the oilsands. 

But the assessments claim that the oilsands were not likely to cause significant environmental effects. And the assessments had zero explanation for the significant health issues that the community was facing. And so there were really valid concerns raised about whether or not the report would have said something different if this community was urban, wealthy, powerful, not an Indigenous community. 

And personally, I don’t doubt that those assessments were downplayed, because just time and time again, we see in Canada and across the world, that Indigenous people are often seen as disposable in order to advance exploitive projects like the oilsands. 

One of the most significant impacts is the destruction and disruption of culture. For example, Indigenous peoples’ cosmologies, spiritualities, and culture are inseparable from the land. And so when their land is contaminated, when it starts to melt under their feet, when they are forcefully displaced off their traditional territories, their culture is put at risk. And when culture is put at risk, then physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health of those communities and that people are also at risk. They don’t know who they are in this world. They’re seeing their culture and their people being exploited and discriminated against every day. And it’s really hard to find hope in those situations. So there’s been an incredible impact on mental health and feelings of hopelessness.

Before the law or government could do anything meaningful to address this, there needs to be a cultural shift and a value shift on that really big cultural level. If we always have these — if we’re always valuing individuality, exploitation, not recognizing the intrinsic value that the land and animals have, that they have value without them benefiting us. Them just existing there in their beauty has value, we don’t need to touch it. 

If we can’t get to those understandings, I don’t think the law or government can truly do anything.

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