A new study released last week found higher than normal levels of pollutants in wild foods that comprise a large part of traditional Native American (First Nations) diets in Alberta, Canada. The study points the finger at the province’s large scale oil sands development in northeast Alberta.
The study was funded by Health Canada, the National First Nations Environmental Contaminants Program, and two First Nations communities. The author of the study, environmental science professor Stephane McLachlan of the University of Manitoba, also reported that the fear of contamination from local plants and animals is driving more members of the native community to expensive grocery stores and off the land and further diminishing the reliance on fresh, local, affordable and wild-harvested foods that have provided healthy nutrition options for millennia.
During the study, local area wildlife was tested for contaminants consistent with oil sands emissions, such as heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Arsenic and mercury levels in muskrat, duck and moose were high enough to pose a health threat to young children. Previous studies have sounded similar alarms and many residents of native communities are less-inclined to follow traditional diets based on the mounting evidence of environmental contamination.
The research also acknowledges the complex relationship these First Nations have with the energy-driven province of Alberta and the oil sands corporations. The author writes that “Substantial employment opportunities are generated by the oil sands. Yet, this development, as well as upstream hydro projects, compromises the integrity of the environment and wildlife, which, in turn, adversely affects human health and well-being.” In addition to jobs, millions of dollars flow into some of these communities. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan, one of the communities that funded the study, acknowledges that the community earns $270 million in annual revenue from industrial contracts with oil sands producers.
Like so many native communities across North America and globally, employment opportunities and economic prosperity are often tied to relationships with resource extraction businesses. Too frequently, these relationships come with very high social, environmental, cultural costs. Even well-meaning and socially-aware corporations can adversely impact traditional ways of life and create unintended negative consequences. As the study points out, many residents of these communities have already been foregoing moose meat, local fish or berries based on the fear of contamination, so their exposure may be relatively low. But they are still drinking the water, breathing the air and, in many cases, making unhealthy choices in the grocery stores.
Alberta is a dynamic, friendly, entrepreneurial and prosperous province. With the Rocky Mountains to the west, the badlands to the east, and boreal forest to the north, it is one of the most beautiful places in North America. It also possesses rich First Nations histories and cultures that are embraced by many native communities today. Dollars aside, it is time the government calculates the true cost of continued and expanded oil sands development and start seeking cleaner energy options.
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