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Oilsands threaten treaty rights, say natives

Low water levels in the Athabasca River are cutting off aboriginals from their treaty rights, says a new report. Athabasca region residents held a press conference at the Edmonton Chateau Lacombe Hotel Thursday to release a new report.

Low water levels in the Athabasca River are cutting off aboriginals from their treaty rights, says a new report.

Athabasca region residents held a press conference at the Edmonton Chateau Lacombe Hotel Thursday to release a new report. Dubbed "As Long as the Rivers Flow," it is thought to be the first to link falling water levels in the Athabasca to treaty rights.

Treaty 8, signed in 1899, guarantees the traditional hunting, trapping and fishing rights of aboriginals throughout the lower Athabasca River.

Interviews with elders and local hunters suggest that large swaths of traditional territory in the region are no longer accessible by boat, says report author Craig Candler.

"If people cannot move around the territory by boat and water, they cannot practice their traditions, culture and rights."

Traditions lost

The peer-reviewed study, done by the Firelight Group Research Co-operative, involved satellite maps of the Athabasca region and interviews with 27 local elders and river users.

The study found boats are still the preferred, if not sole, way for locals to get to traditional hunting, fishing and trapping grounds. Locals still used the river system in many ways, but were now less likely to use it for drinking, trapping and teaching.

Willie Courtoreille, 70, says he can no longer get to about 80 per cent of his band's traditional territory due to low rivers.

"When I started going up [the river] as a young lad, we used to drink off the river with a cup." Now, due to contamination, he has to haul in his own water.

Residents could catch up to 250,000 muskrat a year in this region in the 1960s, Courtoreille says. "Now, you're lucky to get 200." Climate change, industrial development, and the construction of the W.A.C. Bennett Dam have drained lakes and rivers, he says, eliminating animal habitat.

An aboriginal threshold

The study calls for governments to set two thresholds on water withdrawals to protect treaty rights during ice-free conditions, Candler says.

The first would limit water withdrawals whenever weekly flow rates dipped below about 1,600 cubic metres a second — the level above which locals report easy access to traditional lands. The second would ban withdrawals when the river was below 400 cubic metres a second — which is where key waterways and lakes become impassable — without federal and First Nations authorization.

These thresholds are considerably greater than those of the current interim water management framework for the Athabasca. That framework, which is mostly based on the needs of fish, restricts withdrawals when flow rates hit 120 to 1,050 cubic metres a second, but never outright bans them.

The province is working with industry and locals to create a permanent water framework for the river, says Alberta Environment spokesperson Jessica Potter, and is also doing studies on contaminant loads and the effects of pollution on local game.

"All of these ideas are going to be incorporated and considered," she says, with a new framework expected in the near future.

A treaty-rights threshold is a good idea, says David Schindler, a renowned water biologist who reviewed the study, but it might not be practical. Climate change, not industry, is the main driver of lower water levels in the Athabasca, his research suggests — it's like adding an invisible oilsands plant to the river every two years.

"No matter what we do, we're going to have lower and lower water in the river," he says. "The best we can do is make sure the oilsands contribute as little to the problem as possible."

Courtoreille laments the fact that his children will never be able to live the way he once did, and says he hoped the province would consider the study's thresholds. "Consider us as human beings and our survival."

The report can be found at parklandinstitute.ca.


Kevin Ma

About the Author: Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.
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