Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya expressed “huge concern” last week regarding a report that came out in September which concluded that toxins from Fort McMurray tailings ponds have been leaking into the surrounding water system since the 70s.

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said the Dene Nation continues to be concerned about the future of water quality in the NWT after a recent Narwhal article brought attention to toxins that have been leaking from tailings ponds in Fort McMurray, Alta.
NNSL file photo

The report, written by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC), is titled Alberta Tailings Ponds I: Factual Records Regarding  Submission: SEM 17-001.  

It was more recently featured in a Dec. 14 story in The Narwhal.

Yakeleya held a news teleconference on Dec. 17  expressing a continuing need for greater Northern oversight when it comes to monitoring water quality. He said the report identifies a growing threat to water quality in the NWT because it appears that residual affects from tailings ponds are “heading down North.”

“The last couple of days I realized from The Narwhal report on the tailing ponds leakage from the Fort McMurray production… tailings ponds leakage is a huge concern to the Dene Nation,” he said. “We have a huge problem and we understand from the report that tailings ponds from productions of Fort McMurray have been leaking since 1973.”

The Dene Nation represents about 30 chiefs across the North, a few of whom are in the South Slave and stretch into Northern Alberta as part of Treaty 8.

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Yakeleya said it’s his responsibility to raise the alarm so that the federal and the Alberta governments don’t brush the situation aside.


He worries about Northern communities facing water pollution that could lead to negative impacts on traditional Indigenous dependence on land and water. He’s concerned that the Dene, who have long enjoyed quality drinking water and access to a clean environment, may end up with boil advisories that are experienced by some southern Indigenous people.

“Water is life and if we don’t smarten up, one day our communities will depend on water that falls under (similar) water advisories that we see down south where communities wait years to decades to have clean drinking water,” he said.

Yakeleya has shown support for the GNWT’s continued call for NWT representation on the Oil Sands Monitoring Program Oversight Committee because, as he sees it, decision-makers from outside the NWT are making decisions that affect the Dene livelihood without local input.

“We have to all come together as elected leaders of North with one clear voice and say that this is not acceptable,” he said of the report’s findings. “We want a voice at that table and right now we don’t have that voice. We need a voice at that table right now. We need to look at stricter regulations to be put in place.”

Within the Dene Nation’s southern NWT jurisdiction, Chief David Poitras of the Salt River First Nation, Chief Louis Basillie of the Deninu Kue First Nation and Chief Darryl Marlowe of the Lutsel’ke Dene First Nation oversee territories that run directly up against the Alberta border. NNSL Media reached out to those chiefs on Thursday but was unable to get a response.

Environment and Natural Resources response

The GNWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources stated that it’s aware of the recent report but has concluded that there is little evidence that oil sands process-water has reached the near surface waters of the Athabasca River and surrounding tributaries.

“As noted in the CEC report by the secretariat’s independent expert, both peer-reviewed scientific literature and non-peer reviewed industry reports show that in certain situations there is scientifically valid evidence of oil sands process-water (OSPW) seepage into groundwater around tailings ponds,” stated Darren Campbell, media spokesperson for the department.

“In other words, under certain circumstances and situations, it was possible to determine that the bitumen-related substances were detected in local groundwater that was not naturally occurring. However, after an exhaustive review, the secretariat’s expert also found that there is little, if any scientific evidence, that oil sands process-water is reaching the Athabasca River.”

Alberta-NWT Bilateral Water Management Agreement

The Alberta-NWT Bilateral Water Management Agreement was signed in 2015 and commits the Alberta government and the GNWT to share information about water quality, quantity and biology. The agreement also stipulates that the Government of Alberta monitors water at specific sites “that can provide an early warning of potential impacts to water before they reach the NWT border,” Campbell stated.

“There are provisions in the Alberta-NWT Bilateral Water Management Agreement that allow either government to take urgent action where needed to protect the health or safety of the public,” he added. “Any changes to agreed-upon monitoring sites must be discussed through the agreement’s Bilateral Management Committee.”

Campbell said the GNWT has requested membership on the Oil Sands Monitoring Program Oversight Committee and the Technical Advisory Committee for Aquatics and Surface Water to ensure interests downstream are represented.

“We continue to engage with Alberta and Canada on our request,” he added.


Simon Whitehouse

Simon Whitehouse came to Yellowknife to work with Northern News Services in 2011. A through and through "County boy" from Prince Edward County, Ont., Simon obtained his journalism education at Algonquin...

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