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Jean L’Hommecourt Wants You to Know What the Oil Sands Are Doing to Her People and Their Land

Jean L'Hommecourt
Jean L'Hommecourt
Jean L’Hommecourt. Photo courtesy of Jean L’Hommecourt.

Jean L’Hommecourt is an Indigenous Denesulinè, a registered member of Treaty No. 8, an activist and a member of Keepers of the Waters board of directors. And she has a lot to say about what the oil sands are doing to her people and their land.

Jean was born in Fort McMurray and raised on the Athabasca River. She lived on the land in Poplar Point, a territory of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN). At age six, she was removed from her family and taken to Holy Angels Residential School at Fort Chipewyan, where she spent the next six years.

Jean moved away from the area in the early nineteen eighties and spent about 15 years living in the Northwest Territories. But in 1996, her father became seriously ill. She moved back home at that time so her kids could form a connection with their grandfather before he died.

Growing up, Jean was registered with her father’s First Nation, the ACFN. When her parents separated, Jean’s mother registered with Fort McKay FN, which she had belonged to before marriage. Jean and many other members of her family followed suit, and today she is registered with the Fort McKay FN.

Jean lives in Fort McKay, but she also has a cabin on the land east of the Athabasca River. It’s situated in a once-pristine boreal forest, a green, shady place studded with black spruce, pine, poplar, and birch. The land receives plentiful waters, with the Athabasca, Firebag, and Muskeg Rivers all flowing through the area. Wapasu Creek flows near her cabin. Ravens and finches flit through the air. “We have bears, moose, fur-bearing animals like foxes, coyotes, maartens,” Jean tells me. “There’s rabbits and lynx.”

Jean L'Hommecourt's cabin
Jean L’Hommecourt’s cabin. Photo courtesy of Jean L’Hommecourt.

Degraded Land

But now Jean’s land is threatened and degraded by the surrounding industrial operations. Across the Athabasca from Fort McKay, CNRL’s Jackpine and Muskeg River mines spew toxins into the air and water. Syncrude lies to the south, Suncor’s base plant to the southeast, CNRL Horizon to the north. The Imperial Kearl mine lies to the northeast. Further east are the  the Suncor Firebag mine and the Husky Sunrise SAGD project. Jean’s cabin is situated just outside the Imperial lease area, 13 kilometres from the mine. 

With such massive development underway on her very doorstep, it’s not surprising that Jean L’Hommecourt has witnessed far-reaching change. The Athabasca River, a vital artery for the region, is polluted. Jean used to drink from it and fish from it as a teen, alongside elders who put their nets in the river. These things no longer happen.

With so many oil sands sites, it’s harder now to access the land. “There aren’t as many areas where we can go and enjoy our outdoor excursions,” Jean says. “It’s hard to go berry picking now. You run into fences, gates, and private properties. These are infringements on our rights to practice a traditional life. The government is allowing this infringement to happen.”

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Some animals have also disappeared. “There used to be mink, but I haven’t seen mink in ages,” Jean says. “Or the wolverine, I haven’t seen that for years.”

Other resources now go unused. There are medicinal plants and berries in the area, but Jean no longer harvests these because she fears they harbour toxins. She no longer fishes in the area either. Instead, she goes to Saskatchewan or Moose Lake on Fort McKay territory for fish and berries, but with all the surrounding wetlands, Moose Lake is fly-in only in the summer, making it hard to reach.

The Muskeg River is also altered. Her family used to camp and picnic at the mouth of the Muskeg, but no one does that anymore. “There are so many special places that have been taken away and where we are forever blocked or forbidden or not allowed to go into anymore because of the expansion of mines.” The river is barely navigable now too, with water levels lower than ever.

Even the breeze along the river has changed. Muskeg scraped aside to expose the bare earth for extraction has been piled up in great mounds, which channel the wind, increasing its velocity. 

Industrial activity has changed the topography of the land. “We used to have all boreal low wetlands,” Jean tells me. “But now there are high lands. Wind flies over the hills and picks up dust.” The dust is a longstanding concern. Jean fears the toxicity of these airborne particles, which land in the water. As a result, she no longer drinks from Wapasu Creek, which flows near her cabin. She no longer trusts the tap water in Fort McKay either, since the town sources its water from the Athabasca. Jean drinks only distilled water now.

One more thing about that wind-borne dust. It adds up over time. With the passing years, these particles have formed sandbars in the river, hampering navigation.

The Smell of Oil

Of course, the wind carries more than dust alone. It also carries far smaller particles, molecules of the toxic brew produced by the tar sands — the smell of oil.

Jean has noted this smell for years. “We smell it going by Husky’s Sunrise SAGD project. It’s really strong there, and if it’s windy or a little breezy, then the smell gets carried in the direction of the wind.” The smell of oil is present in other areas as well, and it rarely lets up. “It all depends on the direction of the winds and the temperature, I guess, for the smells to get to where we’re at. But here in McKay, we’re totally surrounded, so we don’t get much of a break.”

The odour is inimitable, yet ever-changing. “Sometimes it could smell like sulphur, or you could smell like the petroleum, gasoline kind of smell. And other times, there’s other smells, especially in the summer, you’ll notice it’s more prominent, because of the heat.” But there’s no time of year when the air is free of pollution. Winter is drilling season, and drilling operations use diesel — lots of it. The smell travels readily in that season. “There’s no buffer from the trees, because the leaves are all gone, so it kind of carries it more easily.”

Light and Noise Pollution

Industrial activity does not take place in the dark, and it’s far from silent.

A drilling site is bathed in light. From the top of the derrick to the site perimeter, powerful beams illuminate the area at night. They pierce the darkness, dispelling all that is quiet and peaceful about the night. From her home in Fort McKay, Jean can see the lights across the Athabasca whenever she looks out her back door.

Even without opening her door, Jean is aware of the drilling. The lights are powered by clattering diesel generators, whose racket she hears throughout the night.

Aside from diesel generators, Jean is well acquainted with the sound of duck cannons. Syncrude, Kearl, Suncor Base Plant, CNRL’s Jackpine and Muskeg River mines — every open pit mine has tailings ponds, and every tailings pond is equipped with the powerful air cannons used to repel waterfowl from the tailings ponds. Boom, boom, boom. Living near the mines, Jean has grown accustomed to the blasts.

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Communal Land Use

Jean has had her cabin for around 15 years. The land it sits on is prime habitat for moose, so she uses it as a base for hunting. Along with moose, Jean — and others who share her land — harvest fur-bearing animals like beavers, maartens, coyotes, and foxes. Hunting is a vital source of meat in an area where groceries are expensive. Trapping brings in much-needed cash. These traditional practices also nourish the spirit.

Jean L'Hommecourt's cabin
Jean L’Hommecourt’s cabin. Photo courtesy of Jean L’Hommecourt.

Jean’s brother has a trapline on her land, a common arrangement. Communal land use is an Indigenous tradition, unrecognized by corporations and Western governments. While industry and government use conventional land titles to consult with trapline holders, their title-based consultations leave out many trapline holders and other users who share the land.

When land is damaged or appropriated, only those with title receive monetary compensation. Jean sees this practice as an aspect of colonialism. “Instead of dealing with Nations, industry deals with individuals. They never deal with us on a nation to nation basis, only with individuals. They use divide and conquer tactics.”

Avoiding Rush Hour Traffic

Although she loves the boreal forest in which the cabin is situated, Jean spends less time there now than in years gone by. “I’ll probably stay there the most, maybe for about three, four days. If I go there, I have a reason to go there, to do things. It’s not someplace where I’m totally comfortable.”

I ask Jean why she’s not comfortable at the cabin. “There’s a lot of traffic, a lot of noise that’s going by,” she explains. “At certain times of the day, they have convoys of buses going on that road.”

Over the years, she ‘s become accustomed to the schedule of the mines. “I get to know the times of the most activity, during what times of day. I try to coordinate my schedule around that.” 

I point out that even on the land, she is living like a city dweller, and Jean laughs. “Yeah, it’s like a rush hour thing. Avoid the rush hour, you’ll be okay.”

Yet there are no extended periods of quiet. “I’m dealing with the B-trains, the big 18-wheeler trucks and the dust,” she says. “When I get off the main road to get to my cabin, it’s a little quieter, but not during those peak hours of traffic and all the trucks hauling.”

With all the mines expanding, it’s harder than ever now for Jean to reach her cabin from Fort McKay. “We have to go all the way around on that highway now, which is the only access.”

The Kearl Disaster

In February, we learned that polluted water was escaping the tailings ponds at the Imperial Oil Kearl project. Notification was long overdue. The ponds had been leaking since at least the previous May, but Imperial and the Alberta Energy Regulator kept the leaks secret. The news only came out when the ponds overflowed, spilling 5.3 million litres of tainted waters into the surrounding muskeg — enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools. The First Nations were outraged by the coverup. Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation complained that Imperial executives never mentioned the leak during several face-to-face meetings.

At first glance, you might think that Jean L’Hommecourt had largely escaped the brunt of this disaster. Her cabin is southwest of the site. The spilled tailings are seeping towards the north. 

Yet Jean’s cabin is near the spill area, regardless of the topography. Animals traverse that land, then wander into other areas, including the area where she hunts. Anyone harvesting an animal now cannot be sure it has never passed through the spill area. Jean harvested a moose while the tailings ponds were leaking, unbeknownst to her. She shared the meat with elders and her family. Now she worries about the health of those with whom she shared this gift.

The spill is draining towards the Firebag River, an important tributary, and one of the last pristine, fish-bearing water bodies in the area. The Firebag connects to Wapasu Creek, which flows to the Muskeg, and then to the Athabasca. The Wapasu, moreover, flows past Jean’s cabin. Of course, she hasn’t trusted the Wapasu’s water for a long time. It’s doubtful now that she ever will again.

Land and Reconciliation

The Kearl tailings pond disaster is only the latest assault on Indigenous people’s land, one in a long series of such assaults. Every disaster — and there have been many — undermines Indigenous people’s confidence in nature. For people who define themselves by their connection with the Earth, these are surely devastating blows. The tainting of the air, land, water, and animals and plants drives a wedge between Indigenous people and the land they hold as sacred.

We talk earnestly in Canada now about the need for reconciliation. We open every meeting and public gathering with a land acknowledgment, even when no Indigenous person is present. It’s a useful start towards recognizing Indigenous injury and settler responsibility.

But it’s not enough. Reconciliation can never occur when the injury is ongoing, and land acknowledgments accompanied by land desecration are not going to fool anyone.

It’s time for us to get on with reconciliation. It’s time to live up to our words. Phasing out the oil sands would slow down, and ultimately halt, the continuing assault on places that are precious to others.

The Indigenous-led land back movement has acquired considerable momentum in recent years. Wikipedia tells me that the idea originated with Arnell Tailfeathers, a member of the Kainai Nation (Blackfoot Confederacy), whose traditional territory includes Southern Alberta. As a settler, it’s not for me to say what Land Back means to Indigenous people. But the idea certainly includes a restoration of Indigenous governance and decision-making power. An oil sands phase-out may be part of the conversation. If the subject comes up, we settlers should be prepared to listen.

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