Multi-scale environmental health implications of the Athabasca oil sands for Aboriginal communities in Alberta and Northwest Territories

Regions: South Slave Region

Tags: contaminants, environmental assessment, health, hydrology

Principal Investigator: McLachlan, Stephane M (2)
Licence Number: 14954
Organization: University of Manitoba
Licenced Year(s): 2012 2011
Issued: Aug 05, 2011
Project Team: Erin Kelly (Co-Principal Investigator, Environment & Natural ResourcesGovernment of the Northwest Territories ), Paul Jones (Co-Principal Investigator, University of Sasketchewan)

Objective(s): To better understand and communicate the implications of industrial activity associated with the Athabasca tar sands for environmental and human health as it affects the downstream Aboriginal communities.

Project Description: The overall goal of this study is to better understand and communicate the implications of industrial activity associated with the Athabasca tar sands for environmental and human health as it affects the downstream Aboriginal communities.

The specific objectives are:
i) to document community experiences and concerns regarding changes in environmental and human health;
ii) to evaluate potential sources of contaminants by testing water, soils, plants, and wildlife including fish;
iii) to identify potential exposure of community members to contaminants from wild-caught food, especially as it relates to fish; and
iv) to develop effective cross-cultural approaches to contaminant-related risk communication that reflect both western science and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) as well as the importance of these collaborative relationships.

At least one focus group interview (i.e. sharing circle) will be held in each community using open-ended questions that will allow participants to share their experiences and concerns around the implications of and responses to upstream development associated with the Athabasca Tar Sands. These discussions will be audio-recorded or video-recorded with the permission of those involved. Individual interviews will be conducted in each community at each of the fish days. These will also focus on the implications of and responses to Tar Sands development. These interviews will either be video or audio recorded with the permission of the interviewee.

Participation for this phase will consist of community members, especially those participating in the quarterly fishing days. Broad outreach will have been conducted within each community, and the research project will be promoted on the radio as well as through the administrative offices. Word of mouth will also play a key role. Those that are interested in the research will self-identify and participate in sharing circles. Subsequent sharing circles will be stratified according to gender (winter 2012). The final (spring 2012) sharing circle will focus on sharing and getting feedback on outcomes of lab results, and exploring next steps in the research. Individual interviews will be conducted with some of those who had already participated in the sharing circles. Additional participants who are knowledgeable about changes in environmental and human health will be identified by those whom are already participating in the research (i.e. “snowball sampling”).

This project is part of a multidisciplinary community based effort to document the impact that tar-sands related contamination is affecting fish resources and community health on the Athabasca, Peace and Slave River watersheds in the Northwest Territories and Alberta. The researchers hope to document traditional and local knowledge of fishing resources, the changes which have been observed and the impact which these changes have had on wildlife health, country foods, culture and community health. As a community based project, there are opportunities for local people to help shape the research process and outcomes in data collection, verification, interpretation and dissemination of results. The research team is seeking to engage community liaisons in both locations to help facilitate the participation of locally respected elders and experts in interviews, focus group meetings and sharing circles. With permission of participants and communities, these events will be filmed for the production of short informative films on the impacts of contaminants and community newsletters. These materials will be reviewed for important themes and ideas for verification in subsequent community visits, depending upon the availability of funding (Fall 2011 and Spring 2012). A community liaison will screen the video in each community and record any feedback. This information will in turn shape the final version of the video. The researchers will also use validated and approved materials to create newsletters that communicate these results to audiences within communities and to the general public.

Results will be shared with and amongst project participants through a newsletter. The content will be vetted ahead of time by all contributors. Outcomes will also be shared at community presentations that are accompanied by a community feast. Some interviews will be incorporated into videos that are distributed within the participating communities. If and when permission is provided, these videos would be distributed to a wider audience via the Internet and video showings. These videos would also be displayed on the project website. The outcomes of this research may ultimately be distributed in academic publications as well as in conventional popular and in alternative media. However, the researcher’s intent is that the participating communities should be the primary audience in the research.

The fieldwork for this study will be conducted from July 4, 2011 to December 31, 2011.