Fort Chipewyan study culminates in documentary

Fort Chipewyan study culminates in documentary
Videographer Michael Tyas (left), with the help of Josh Belak on sound (right), interviews Union of BC Indian Chiefs vice president Bob Chamberlin at the 2013 Tar Sands Healing Walk north of Fort McMurray for the One River, Many Relations film.Photo: Meagan Wohlberg.

With voices expressing concern about the health of water and wildlife, pride in working for industry and an interest in collaborating with government on environmental monitoring, the perspectives shown in a recent documentary out of Fort Chipewyan highlight the complex relationship community members have with development upstream.

The new feature-length film, One River, Many Relations, set to be released this September, shares the worries and experiences of local people in the Peace-Athabasca Delta as they relate to the oilsands industry, hydro projects, changing climate and loss of traditional livelihood.

Created by the University of Manitoba’s Environmental Conservation Lab, it is the first documentary to come out of the region that does not involve politicians, scientists or celebrities in delivering its message, which is far from a simplistic or one-sided portrayal of life downstream, according to the filmmaker.

“A lot of the outsider support or disdain for the oilsands is so black and white. It’s either an aggressive media campaign from the oilsands on TV saying everything’s great and we’re all working together, or it’s Greenpeace or middle-class Torontonians taking to the streets in major cities decrying the oilsands with the only solution being to shut them down,” said Michael Tyas, the videographer behind the documentary.

“Our documentary reveals that it is not that simple, that the community both enjoys prosperity and economic development from industry, and mourns the death of loved ones from rare cancers. It’s a community full of residential school survivors who have struggled up till now to support themselves after the decline of the fur industry, so they’re in a Catch 22.”

The One River, Many Relations project, which includes a yearly newsletter as well, was borne out of a community-based wild foods monitoring program funded by Mikisew Cree First Nation and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in conjunction with Health Canada and researchers and videographers from the University of Manitoba.

The program was the first of its kind in the community to actively and intentionally combine traditional knowledge in the form of interviews with elders and land users with data collected through scientific research – an approach sought by locals exhausted with outside studies that did not actively involve their participation or report results back to the community.

“More often than not, you find scientists come into the community and they’re not interacting with the local population or, at best, there’s some token involvement, such as hiring an elder to tag along or hiring land users to bring in samples, and that’s where it stops,” Tyas said.

“The knowledge is taken out of the community and, if it is ever relayed, it’s in a manner that’s impossible to decipher for most people, in a large document with very academic speech. So One River, Many Relations was an attempt to turn that around, to have meaningful involvement with indigenous people and to relay results back in culturally appropriate ways.”

The testimony of locals with regards to environmental changes, from the disappearance of wildlife to shrinking water levels, became a key component of written reports and newsletters along with results from a network of scientists doing research on fish health, water quality and other wildlife in the area.

“The newsletter is a response from what we’ve heard from people: they are tired of scientists coming in, taking information and disappearing. So we have researchers talking about actual results, which is rare to come by in today’s climate of scientists being muzzled,” Tyas said.

The documentary, on the other hand, is primarily intended to function as a powerful visual report back to the community, as well as a way to share their voices outside.

“Ultimately, what I’ve learned is that the community wants to be part of oilsands development. They want a say in economic development and the protection of Mother Earth, and that’s a voice that has really not been given a chance to speak,” Tyas said. “It’s been an honour to be part of this project and helping to give voice to people silenced for so long.”

For more on the project, visit

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