To the Last Drop

From Al Jazeera‘s excellent Witness series:

The small town of Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta is facing the consequences of being the first to witness the impact of the Tar Sands project, which may be the tipping point for oil development in Canada. The local community has experienced a spike in cancer cases and dire studies have revealed the true consequences of “dirty oil”.

Gripped in a Faustian pact with the American energy consumer, the Canadian government is doing everything it can to protect the dirtiest oil project ever known. In the following account, filmmaker Tom Radford describes witnessing a David and Goliath struggle.

Below the fold you can also watch Dirty Oil, the 2009 documentary on the Alberta tar sands directed by Leslie Iwerks.

I shot my first film, Death of a Delta, in Fort Chipewyan in 1972. I shot it with a hand crank Bolex camera with a maximum 26-second wind. I had to make sure people knew what they were talking about. There was no time for red herrings. In our new film, To the Last Drop, the latest in digital HD and Cineflex cameras capture the landscape of northern Alberta as never before.

But while technology can go through multiple revolutions in 49 years, the issue that drives both our films remains the same: the rights of downstream communities, and the need to recognise those rights, no matter how powerful their upstream neighbours.

Death of a Delta documented the fight of Fort Chipewyan to have a voice in the construction of a massive hydroelectric project on the Peace River, the W.A.C. Bennett Dam. At stake was not only the survival of the oldest community in Alberta, but the protection of a World Heritage site, the Peace Athabasca Delta, a convergence of migratory flyways and the greatest concentration of waterfowl on the continent.

In the David and Goliath struggle that ensued, David won. Water was released from the dam and water levels in the Delta returned to normal. The unique ecology of the region was saved. The town survived.

Today, that same David, the collective will of the thousand residents of Fort Chipewyan, is fighting an even more imposing Goliath. The Alberta oil sands is arguably now the world’s largest construction project. Its expansion will have an estimated $1.7 trillion impact on the Canadian economy over the coming decades. An area of boreal forest the size of Greece will be affected by industrial activity.

Once again the issue is water, but this time it is not just the flow of the river, but the chemicals the current may be carrying downstream from the strip mines and bitumen upgraders.

In recent years, according to the Alberta Cancer Board, Fort Chipewyan has experienced an unusually high rate of cancer. Local fishermen are finding growing numbers of deformed fish in their nets. Residents and John O’Connor, the community doctor, worry there could be a connection to the oil sands.

As they did in the 1970s, the people of Fort Chipewyan have appealed to science for help. Then it was William Fuller, a biologist from the University of Alberta, who collected the data that proved the Delta was dying. Today, it is David Schindler, the winner of the Stockholm Water Prize, and a team of international scientists conducting painstaking research to find out what is in the Athabasca River – and where it is coming from.

Alan Adam, the chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, has worked closely with Schindler. He knows that vast areas of the Delta are once again becoming impassable because of falling water levels. This means the hunting, trapping and fishing rights guaranteed to his people in Treaty 8 are worthless.

He has appealed to elders like Pat Marcel and Francois Paulette from neighbouring Fort Fitzgerald to record the changes they are seeing in the water and the wildlife. In a unique exchange, science and traditional knowledge are coming together to challenge the oil sands.

When I first arrived in Fort Chipewyan in 1972, an Indian kid was sitting on the dock singing Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart. The old guitar he was playing had about three strings. One verse at a time, we recorded the song with our 26-second camera. Then we tried to get the rights. The kid was no problem, but Nashville will always be Nashville. Too bad. It would have been the perfect cover for all those years of government and industry duplicity.

These days the powers that be are beginning to listen. The recent Oilsands Advisory Panel, appointed by Jim Prentice, the former environment minister, stressed in its December 2010 report the importance of proper research and regulation. We have to know what is in the water.

Maybe David has a chance to win again. Goliath would be better for it.


One thought on “To the Last Drop”

  1. No 1, they are called Oil Sands, not Tar Sands, and Albertans are extremely sensitive about this for some reason. So, if you filmed there and called them the Tar Sands, then you were chided daily, and would never, not ever, have called them Tar Sands in this film. Albertans view this as an indication that whomever uses this term is completely unaware of the issue, and has not done their homework. It’s like calling the Inuit “Eskimos,” or saying “faggots” for gays.

    No 2, the following scientists for The Royal Society of Canada Expert Panel for The Royal Society of Canada, The Academies of Arts, Humanities and Sciences of Canada researched this issue for 15 months and issued their 428-page report in December 2010, four months after the US filmmaker who created Titantic made himself the poster child for this in Sept 2010.
    Dr. Pierre Gosselin
    Dr. Steve E. Hrudey, FRSC (Chair)
    Dr. M. Anne Naeth
    Dr. André Plourde
    Dr. René  Therrien
    Dr. Glen Van Der Kraak
    Dr. Zhenghe Xu
    From the Summary:
    Impacts of oil sands contaminants on downstream residents: There is currently no credible evidence of environmental contaminant exposures from oil sands reaching Fort Chipweyan at levels expected to cause elevated human cancer rates. More monitoring focused on human contaminant exposures is needed to address First Nation and community concerns.” reported in December 2010 that “Impacts of Canada’s oil-sands operations ‘exaggerated’.”
    “The report, released today, rebuts the claim made by John O’Connor, a local physician and afterwards, by environmental groups such as ForestEthics, that the elevated cancer rates seen in the northern Alberta community of Fort Chipewyan are due to exposure to oil-sands contaminants from industrial activity further up the Athabasca River.”

    The Project Report is called: Environmental and Health Impacts of Canada’s Oil Sands Industry, December 2010.
    The Executive Summary and Full report are here:

    More information is here:

    Unlike the USA and the rest of Canada, Alberta has draconian laws about environmental impact and hazards from drilling anything in Alberta, and has had them in place for over 40 years. (1) You must restore the property drilled or defaced (oil, minerals, water, gas, you name it) to the same or better condition in which you found it, and (2) any danger to civilians as a result is fined and taken seriously. There is nothing even remotely similar in the rest of Canada or the USA.

    Whoever did this film misrepresented the facts.

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