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Amazay Lake’s important location at the headwaters of the Findlay River was mentioned in every interview. Every participant expressed concern for the whole system that is connected to the lake, explaining that polluting the watershed would cause irreparable damage to the fish, wildlife and human populations that rely on it. Amazay Lake, where caribou come to deliver their young, was once considered a caribou corridor and an abundant hunting ground. According to some interviewees, Amazay, meaning “mother” in Sekani, refers to caribou mothers who would find shelter at Amazay Lake to calve.
Signs that Amazay is a caribou calving ground is evident to many of the people who frequent the area, and this would be directly impacted by Kemess North.
People speak with concern about the poor health and declining populations of fish and wildlife species that they have noticed. Interviewees noted declining populations of caribou and moose, yellow fat, bald spots, cysts and tumours in moose, caribou suffering from blindness and significantly reduced populations of arctic greyling and porcupine.
The diminishing health of groundhog, which is a staple for Tse Keh Nay people, is of particular concern and is an example of the link between the health of plants, animals and First Nations people. According to several interviewees, the groundhog eats plants that have strong medicinal properties for humans; the plants are toxic if eaten directly, but the plant’s medicine is obtained when groundhog flesh is eaten. Moreover, participants made it very clear that it is not possible to contain water, fish or wildlife within abstract boundaries (e.g., property lines), and movement from a polluted area into a pristine areas can easily occur.
Concern for ground water integrity was mentioned by a third of the interviewees, all of whom assert that Amazay Lake is connected to underground streams. It is believed that the groundwater is not safe from the waste that would be stored in the lake. The quality of drinking water from the Findlay is considered at risk, and many interviewees commented on the irony of having to pack bottled water into their camps. There is a general sense that water in the bush is no longer safe to drink due to all the resource extraction projects in the area; Kemess North is seen as a potentially huge contributor to this trend.
b. The Kemess North proposal
While the primary concern is for the environment, a related concern is that the proponent will not sufficiently monitor the site, including the dam. Both participating First Nations have extensive experience with other companies that have left their operation sites contaminated. Several participants cite Cheni Mine as an example of an operation that promised to clean up, but did not. The majority of interviewees are concerned that the waste disposal facility, the dams and the mine site will be insufficiently monitored, increasing the perception that the project poses a high-level risk to them, particularly in the case of a dam failure. There is a deep understanding of long-term time frames among the two First Nations, because they have been in their territories since time immemorial and cannot imagine a time when will they move away from their homes. Therefore, the monitoring plans are of great importance, and the general sense is that Northgate, when speaking about long-term monitoring, may not, in fact, be defining long-term to suit the needs of the First Nations. This contributes to the level of risk related to the project.
The same logic is applied to reclamation. For the communities who live near the proposed mine site, the notion of reclamation is not always comforting. There is a great deal of concern that once the area is degraded, further environmental degradation will be more readily accepted. Many interviewees expressed concern that the site could never be reclaimed to a level that meets their values. For example, participants worry that reclamation cannot recover lost artifacts or burial sites, nor can it return the site to its original state, a state that has always been, and continues to be, valued by the Tse Keh Nay First Nations.
c. Cumulative impacts Nearly every interviewee spoke about the impacts from other activities taking place in their territories. In Takla Landing, the participants spoke about current and historical mining activities near their community. The interviewees gave examples of contaminated sites they had seen and talked about how their way of life is constantly under pressure from resource development. In Tsay Keh Dene, the biggest negative impact has been the Williston Reservoir. The community has had to move more than once and has lost trap lines, trails, burial grounds, cabins and transportation routes in the flooding following the construction of the WAC Bennett Dam. The reservoir rises and recedes leaving great quantities of debris on fine silt beaches. With the forest under water, there is nothing to stop the wind from causing severe dust storms which the residents of Tsay Keh Dene live with on a daily basis. Community members have many health problems as a result, such as asthma, chronic coughing and head sores.
For people who live in relatively remote communities and who rely a great deal on a traditional food system for a healthy, economically feasible source of nutrition and for whom the land is an integral part of their cultural identity and social fabric, it does not make sense to measure the risks of one project without considering the cumulative impacts of all the development in their territories. For example, for the Tsay Keh Dene participants, the pressures and constraints they are currently dealing with have reached the maximum threshold that the community can bear. There is the perception that one more project, especially one the size of Kemess North, will literally wipe them out.
Many interviewees spoke of the declining populations of moose, caribou, and groundhog;
they told stories in which past abundance was contrasted with the current challenge of getting even one moose in a season. Thus, it may be that one mine alone can not cause these declines, but in conjunction with other mining, forestry, and road building activities one more project may not be able to proceed without jeopardizing the sustainability of already precarious food systems.
2. Health The meaning of health, once defined biomedically as “the absence of disease,” has evolved to incorporate physical, cultural, social and economic processes (Gesler & Kearns, 2002; Meade & Earickson, 2000). Culture and place are increasingly recognized as having fundamental roles in how health and health care are defined and experienced (Gesler & Kearns, 2002; O’Neil et al. 1993; Macintyre et al., 2002; Elliott & Foster, 1995). Although culture is a “notoriously difficult concept to define” (Gesler & Kearns, 2002, 12), there is general agreement that it involves all the socially produced values and beliefs that a group of any size possesses collectively (Lemert, 1997 cited in Gesler & Kearns, 2002). It influences, and is influenced by, political, economic, historical, geographical and social processes (Gesler & Kearns, 2002, 12). According to Meade & Earickson (2000), human behaviour is constructed culturally and “includes mobility, roles, cultural practices, and technological interventions” (26). Culture molds human behaviour and thus determines how social groups interact with their environment (Meade & Earickson, 2000).
First Nations’ spaces are, in large part, produced by the dominant society; the reserve system is just one example of how First Nations’ territories have been reduced, bounded and shaped by government policies (Harris, 2002). However, First Nations should not be seen as neutral entities acted upon by colonial powers; as Morris and Fondahl (2002) and others (e.g., Harris, 2002) argue, resistance to government policies by First Nations peoples has resulted in “spaces of negotiation” where First Nations engage in a continuing battle for the protection of their cultural and environmental values (109).
Protecting cultural and environmental values is directly linked to protecting the health and well-being of First Nations members.
a. Physical health
Both Takla Lake First Nation and Tsay Keh Dene participants noted numerous examples of game that showed signs of poor health. As a result, there is growing fear that traditional food sources are not safe, and many people claim that they are not hunting in areas that are feared to be contaminated, or that they are not hunting at all. Contamination and fear of contamination both act to jeopardize the health of First Nations people. It is known that most contaminants impact human health through the food they eat (Chiu et al., 2004; Kuhnlein & Chan, 2000). Thus, First Nations with diets based largely on wild game and fish may have a higher risk of ingesting unsafe levels of contaminants (Usher et al., 1995; Harris and Harper, 2001; Mos et al., 2004). Fear of contaminants also causes people to avoid wild game and fish, thus removing a valuable source of nutrition which is often replaced with lower quality foods (Arquette et al. 2002). In fact, it has been argued that fear of contaminants that causes a change from a traditional to a western diet poses the greater health risk (Kuhnlein & Chan, 2000; Fallon, 2003). There was general consensus among all the interviewees that traditional food sources are preferable, but that there is an overall fear that they are becoming increasingly contaminated by industrial activity.
The area around Amazay Lake is a well-known and well-used hunting area that people frequent yearly. However, there are more instances every year of groundhogs that are underweight and have bald spots, and of moose that have soft, mushy meat or signs of disease, such as tumours in their organs. When game is found to be unhealthy like this, people develop a sense that participating in traditional food systems is risky. Interviews reveal that many people fear contamination and hunt less, which jeopardizes their health as they spend less time on the land and have less nutritious diets.
b. Social issues Participants were asked whether they believed that Kemess North would have positive impacts on their communities. Each interviewee noted that there were jobs and training available, but that this did not compensate for the long-term negative impacts that they believed Kemess North would have. Employment opportunities were generally not seen as viable for many residents, and thus, unable to benefit the community overall. Housing, health care and education would not be improved by prolonging the mine life, according to the interviewees. Not one interviewee felt that the mine would improve the social problems facing the communities of Takla Landing and Tsay Keh Dene. A participant from Takla Landing explains that social problems like drug and alcohol misuse are a result of not spending enough time on the land; he said, “the cultural part, living off the land, is missing.” It was also noted several times that kids who get to go out and learn traditional activities “do better.”
c. Stress and worry
Land based activities not only promote physical health but they also reduce stress and generally increase one’s sense of well-being. One participant said that going to the land helps to “relieve stress.” He continued by explaining that “you get rejuvenated when you go out on the land and into the bush.” The participants’ sense of disempowerment and their concern that their values and their perceptions of risk were not important was evident. Each interviewee expressed their anxiety about Kemess North and their hope that they would be heard. The stress that individuals are under is evident in this interviewee’s statement: “If the government tells them to go ahead and use Duncan Lake, they might as well sign our death warrant.” The communities themselves are under stress as well, and struggle with limited human and financial resources to participate in the environmental assessment process. The situation has resulted in conflict among some community members and overall increased levels of stress, which is detrimental to human health.
3. Politics and Power
This examination of the environmental concerns of Takla Lake and Tsay Keh Dene First Nations is informed by aspects of political ecology that seek an understanding of positional environmental knowledge and the power relations involved in environmental practice. This project examines the politics and power relations involved in risk assignment and risk management in the case of Kemess North.
While political ecology involves the political and economic processes that inform land management decisions, environmental justice includes the social issues that drive these concerns. Environmental justice literature examines the power differentials that cause some people to suffer a greater burden of environmental pollution and degradation and argues that important social processes contribute to the contamination of First Nations’ territories, such as the marginalization of minority groups such as Takla Lake and Tsay Keh Dene First Nations (Ali, 2003). The framework offers an explanation for the difficulty experienced by these two First Nations to have their concerns addressed by the dominant society. O’Neill (2003) argues that environmental justice encompasses a different set of issues for First Nations peoples than for other groups because they have special historical and contemporary circumstances. She states, “Environmental justice requires attention to the interrelated cultural, spiritual, social, ecological, economic, and political dimensions of environmental issues” (1). In other words, the effects of the Kemess expansion must be considered in the specific context of the Takla Lake and Tsay Keh Dene First Nations; it is not sufficient to judge the impacts of the mine from the perspective of the dominant society and its values only.
a. Frustration with EIA process