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Keystone XL stories: Francois Paulette

Posted Dec. 16, 2010 / Posted by: Kelly Trout

François Paulette is a member of the Smith's Landing Treaty 8 Dene First Nation and lives 200 miles downstream from the tar sands industry site in Fort Chipewyan in Alberta, Canada. François was previously chief and vice-chief of the Dene Nation and is currently a commissioner with the Assembly of First Nations, a national organization representing 630 First Nations across Canada.

As both a father and grandfather, François believes that the way of life for many people living in First Nation lands in Canada is quickly changing, leaving many people uncertain about the future. The drastic drop in water levels in the Athabasca River system and a lack of fresh water for drinking are the biggest concerns for aboriginal communities living downstream from the tar sands. The Dene community must have water delivered two days a week because its river is polluted with toxins like lead and mercury.

While industry groups claim to be creating jobs for local people, companies don't recruit workers from the Dene Nation and the community receives none of the revenue produced from tar sands oil refining on their land.

Inspired to stop the tar sands industry from destroying his community, François visited Washington, D.C. in September 2010 as part of a delegation of Canadian First Nations leaders. He met with the White House to share concerns about the environmental toll on Canada's downstream communities.

The following is a transcript of an interview between François and Friends of the Earth staff about his experience living downstream from tar sands oil production sites and fighting the Keystone XL pipeline.

You can read more stories from the front lines of the fight to stop the pipeline here.

Tell me about your community.

Our community borders the North West territories and Wood Buffalo National Park World Heritage site, which is the last free roaming buffalo land in the world. We live along the river that flows into the Great Slave Lake and then into the Arctic. It is a beautiful place.

The environment has been changing in the last few years. The river divides the forest and freshwater and lake region. People that live in this community live a contemporary lifestyle; however we still live close to the land. Most of our homes are heated by firewood through the winter even though it is 40 below and we have access to electricity from a small hydro plant 30 miles away. We are surrounded by trees - spruce, poplar, birch and willow trees, and this river carries many species of fish -- Northern pike jack, white fish, and suckers. There are maybe 10 or 12 species of fish common here but they are suffering as the river loses its flow. They are taking water out of the river for the tar sands and it is affecting the river -- it's at the lowest level we have ever seen it.

How does the tar sands industry affect the way you live?

We can't drink the water directly from the river and we are cautious of eating the fish. The water is murky and the streams that feed the big river have gone dry. It affects the fish, plants, and people who travel the river. The river does not freeze until the end of January and in the past people used boats to cross the river but now they must wait until it freezes. There are more sandbars, and more rocks, making boat travel difficult and causing accidents. It changes the whole nature of travel.

The wildlife are affected: the moose, deer, bears, the beaver and the muskrat. The beaver has to build its house to the shoreline. There is a hydro dam way up the Peace River. Now this affects the beavers because their houses will be underwater. Birds like the eagle are staying up here all winter now to feed on the fish, which is unusual. We are on the second biggest flyway of migratory birds in North America, but they are finding more and more dead birds because the holding ponds are being monitored more closely and this is apparent now. There are not as many ducks or geese. And animals are very perceptive to their surroundings so it is hard to say what they are picking up.

There is a call now for the Canadian government to put woodland caribou on the endangered species list in Northern Alberta. Acid rain and smokestacks are affecting the food of wildlife. In reality our world is quickly changing around us and we have a hard time adapting so easily. We don't see the Alberta government representatives coming to us and telling us what is going on.

Have you noticed any patterns in health problems?

There seems to be a rise in cancer but we don't know for sure if it is the water or not. There is a lot of stomach cancer and cancers of the intestines. We think it is related to water.

What is your community's relationship with industry?

We don't have any relationship with McMurray. There might be a few individuals who work there but I don't know of anyone off hand. Suncor and SynCrude don't come here to recruit so we don't see them. Do they directly give us jobs? No not at all.

How is your community trying to fight the tar sands industry?

We are trying to provide exposure. I traveled to Washington, D.C. and talked to the news, explaining that we are asking for a moratorium on the tar sands through a resolution. We have had water conferences to deal with the pollution. We are meeting about the water quite regularly.

At the pace the tar sands is going they are in the process of killing the river completely if they don't change their technology and this Keystone XL pipeline needs to be reconsidered in a big way. This argument about "we either take oil from the Middle East or here" needs to be reexamined. The only reason they are taking oil from here is because multinational corporations are from here. They are taking this dirty oil from here and pumping it to the states. You can't look at Fort McMurray in a vacuum; you have to look at the big picture. They shouldn't be selfish.

Whether you get oil from Venezuela, Saudi Arabia or Canada we need to ask: What is it doing to the people and the environment? Is this oil killing the environment? The answer is of course yes. I don't think it is an argument. And to date the United States has been buying oil from Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Canada. And Canada is not even giving revenue from tar sands to the indigenous people that own the territory -- and that is a shame.

I always try to think positively and I hope the American people consider this Keystone pipeline and ask if they really need it. If you build Keystone XL there will be so much more damage to the environment. It is as simple as that.

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