Elders share wisdom on water quality, fish health

Elders share wisdom on water quality, fish health

“We have to realize that this is water and water is the source of life for everything. We have to take care of water and we’re going to find that if we poison the water, then we’re done.”

Arthur Beck’s concerns were video-taped by Andy Miller from the University of Manitoba during Fort Smith’s community fish monitoring event last month.

Beck, who is from Fort Resolution, was one of a number of subjects interviewed. Miller’s crew accompanied the scientific team visiting communities downstream of the oilsands to find out if contaminants are in the water.

At each stop, starting in Fort Resolution and including Fort Chipewyan, Fort McKay and Fort McMurray, Miller said his task was to provide a “human dimension” to the study by giving Aboriginal elders a forum where they can share their personal observations on changes they have experienced in the region’s fish stocks.

While white-coated scientists dissected fish and collected hard data that will help tell the story of the health of aquatic life in the Slave River and Athabasca Delta, Miller and his crew filmed elders telling their stories about what they see happening to the water and the fish that live in it.

“There’s been some expression of concern about the health of fish and their potential impacts on people and what that might mean in terms of people being able to access healthy food and what it means to their culture,” Miller said. “A lot of these cultures have an incredibly long history of living off the land, but that’s no good if you’re afraid and it’s making you sick to eat country food.”

Miller said he got involved in the fish study project with the NWT government because of the need to address the anxiety local people were feeling about eating their traditional foods.

Not getting answers to  questions why they keep finding deformed fish has also taken a toll and there is concern for the future of the ecosystem.

“They just don’t know and we’re trying to respond to that,” Miller said.

Though the scientific data being gathered will be critical in substantiating analyses of the water system, Miller believes community elders have information about local ecosystems that should not be overlooked.

“A lot of [local] people talk about observing changes in the ‘80s and they’re talking about it from an incredibly informed perspective,” Miller said. “Their knowledge is incredibly sophisticated because they are observing constantly. They look at the body of the fish and then at the organs. They’re discarding them because there is obviously something strange about the fish. They’re seeing changes that are making them uncomfortable.”

Miller will post the movie to a website and circulate newsletters about the project’s findings. If the communities involved agree, Miller will make efforts to have it shown to a wider audience.

He said he hoped industry will get involved in promoting the project so it can have a greater impact.

“I think there are places in industry that don’t understand that people here depend on this resource not in any grand way, but simply to stay alive,” he said.

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