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Food Contamination in the Athabasca Oil Sands Region

Thu, March 30, 1:30 to 3:00pm, The Drake Hotel, Venetian


This paper traces the history of controversies around the contamination of traditional foods in the Athabasca region from oil sands development. It argues that the actual and perceived contamination of traditional foods has contributed to a climate of uncertainty surrounding the health of wild food sources that has had cultural impacts on indigenous traditional land use. Industrial development in the Athabasca region since the late 1960s has both reduced and contaminated the traditional food base of indigenous communities in the region. The direct environmental impacts of bitumen extraction in the Athabasca oil sands region associated with strip mining, upgrading, in-situ extraction, and infrastructure development have damaged ecosystems that provide a food base for Indigenous communities in the region. Indirect environmental impacts from mechanisms such as watershed contamination, and atmospheric deposition have contaminated traditional food sources far beyond the physical reach of the oil sands industry. In oral history interviews, traditional land use studies, and public statements indigenous people have reported smaller and less healthy large game, with some reports of parasites being found in carcasses. Fish covered in large tumors have been caught regularly in lake Athabasca, downstream of the oil industry. In communities proximate to mines and upgrading facilities people have reported dust covering berry patches and other medicinal plants. Some community members and doctors have connected ecosystem and food contamination to cancer outbreaks. The issue of food contamination has become increasingly politicized as there has been little peer-reviewed scientific research that either confirms or denies the links between industrial development and food contamination. Perceptions of food contamination, in conjunction with the industrial pressures on ecosystems have weakened trust in traditional foods. The increasing difficulties associated with contemporary harvesting and unclear safety of traditional foods have had have threatened Indigenous land use.