Keystone XL approval worries northern Alberta's Fort Chipewyan Indigenous residents

Alex Brockman
Indigenous residents in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., say they fear an expansion of Alberta's oil industry will threaten their way of life. (David Thurton / CBC)

Project touted as safe and responsible, but Indigenous environmental activists not convinced

Raymond Ladouceur remembers what happened to Lake Athabasca when an oil pipeline leaked nearly 30 years ago.

Oil seeped into the water, creating slicks that forced fish to dive deep underwater and eat mud, something he'd never seen before.

"The stuff was yellow, and you talk about the stink," Ladouceur said from his home in Fort Chipewyan, Alta. "I can't describe it. It's a rotten smell, very hard on the nose."  

Ladouceur's memories form the basis of his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. He's one of several Indigenous residents in northern Alberta expressing disappointment with the U.S State Department's decision on Friday to green-light the project.

The presidential permit granted to Calgary-based TransCanada allows the company to build the multibillion-dollar cross-border pipeline after years of delays.

It was already approved in Canada and has the support of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who praised it as a "safe and responsible" way to help a hobbled Alberta recover from the fall in oil prices.

Once completed, the pipeline would bring more than 800,000 barrels per day of heavy crude from Alberta into Nebraska. From there, the oil would flow through an existing pipeline network feeding U.S refineries and ports along the Gulf of Mexico.

"What can you say?" asked Francois Paulette, a Dene elder and environmental activist from Smith's Landing First Nation, who fought the pipeline for years.

"There's a government in place in the United States that doesn't care about climate change or the environment," he said.


Francois Paulette

Francois Paulette is against the construction of pipelines and has been campaigning against Keystone XL for years. (Pat Kane/CBC)

 Paulette says he's concerned approving Keystone XL is the first step in expanding Alberta oil production. 

"It says to me they're going to pollute the rivers," Paulette said. "Have a bigger impact on the air, the rivers we live along down the Mackenzie River."

"That's where the biggest impact will be felt by the Indigenous people."

TransCanada officials cite thousands of construction jobs coming along with the pipeline. For Alice Rigney, that's also part of the problem for young Indigenous people.


Alice Rigney, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations

Alice Rigney, Athabasca Chipewyan FN, derisively calls the Alberta oilsands 'tarsands' and says industry pulls young Indigenous people away from their traditional way of life. (John Rigney)

 She's fought against the petroleum industry and refers to the oilsands derisively as "tarsands." She says high salaries and steady work lure young people away from the land.

"Salaries start around $75,000 a year," Rigney said. "Just imagine what you could buy with that, within a few years you could buy a boat. Material things are important but the trapline we grew up on no longer exists."   

"The trapline is now the tarsands. That's where our people go," Rigney said. "They see our way of life being destroyed by industry. The kids finish school and go to work in the tarsands."

[Top image: Indigenous residents in Fort Chipewyan, Alta., say they fear an expansion of Alberta's oil industry will threaten their way of life. (David Thurton / CBC)]