As Long as the Rivers Flow

Athabasca River Knowledge, Use and Change

On July 13, 1899, on the northwest shore of Lake Athabasca in Fort Chipewyan, our grandfathers entered into a Sharing Agreement with the Crown. This Agreement, known as Treaty 8, guaranteed the hunting, fishing and trapping rights of our peoples in support of sustaining our traditional livelihood, in return for our peoples promising to share the land and resources with the Crown. In entering into this agreement, we were assured that our way of life would not be changed and that it would be protected. These rights are guaranteed by the Constitution Act of Canada and courts have declared that the Crown must give priority consideration to these rights where commercial, or other interests, conflict with them. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Canada is a signatory, further affirms and upholds our treaty and aboriginal rights. The Treaty 8 rights are integral to the ability of our peoples to sustain their livelihood, culture, and well-being in a rapidly changing world. And it is the goal of our peoples to do so.

The Lower Athabasca River system, which includes the Peace-Athabasca Delta, is absolutely critical for the ability of our members to practice their Treaty 8 rights, and to sustain their unique aboriginal livelihoods, cultures, and identities as Cree and Dene peoples. Our First Nations have depended upon the bountiful ecology of the Delta to sustain our families, cultures, and livelihood for generations. The Athabasca River itself is our main travel route into the heart of our Traditional Lands. Without adequate water quality or quantity in the river system, we cannot access our important cultural, spiritual, and subsistence areas and we cannot sustain the health and well-being of our families on the traditional foods that we have always obtained from it.

As Leaders, we are relatively young. But yet, in our lifetimes, we have seen drastic changes in the quality and quantity of water in the Athabasca River. When we were children we still drank the water from the river channel flowing out from the Delta, past our on-reserve communities and Fort Chipewyan. The abundant fish, game and waterfowl of the Delta fed our families. The rich harvests of muskrat and beaver helped to clothe, shelter, and feed us.

Today, we will not allow our loved ones to drink the water from the river. The abundance of the past is now only a memory as the water levels in the delta have dropped significantly since the WAC Bennett Dam was developed in the late 1960s. We have experienced oil spills whereby our Elders were exposed to toxic chemicals during the clean-up, and our reserves became dumping grounds for the toxic waste. As water levels continue to decline and water quality and health concerns continue to grow, we wonder what has happened to our Treaty Rights and the sharing agreement we entered into with the Crown so many years ago.

Yet, despite this, our people continue to nurture the seeds of hope for change and a brighter future than can be had for simply the price of oil. Our vision for a better future is one in which our people and communities are healthy, our Cree and Dene cultures are alive and vibrant, and our needs are met and our traditional lands are pristine. In this vision, we picture our grandchildren swimming in the river without fear of contamination and once again drinking water by merely scooping it up in a cup from the lake. We see them learning the rivers secrets and rewards, as we did as children, as they travel upon it to practice their rights of hunting, fishing and trapping.

We invite all Albertans, and Canadians everywhere, to join us in the pursuit of this vision. In the spirit of sharing our culture and knowledge with the interested public and policy-makers, we are very pleased to release this study, As Long as the Rivers Flow: Athabasca River Knowledge, Use and Change, prepared by the Firelight Group and published by the Parkland Institute. We also wish to extend our sincere thanks to the ACFN and MCFN Elders and Members that shared their knowledge and experience of the river with us for this study; without them this study would not have been possible. We also wish to acknowledge and thank the staff of the ACFN IRC and the MCFN GIR for their dedication to our vision, and for their hard work laying the groundwork for, and coordination, this study.

This study captures the importance of the Lower Athabasca River system to the practice of our Treaty Rights. Because of this importance, the Governments of Alberta and Canada must clearly consider and protect our Treaty Rights in the rules governing water allocations from the Lower Athabasca River. The issue is not what is causing water levels to decline, but how we can plan for, manage, and sustain this important resource for our future generations. The thresholds and recommendations developed in this study offer a way to “translate” our treaty rights and cultural needs into a format that can be used to inform policy and decision-making on the Lower Athabasca River.

We are extremely proud to be proactive in developing methods for implementing our Treaty Rights in planning and decision-making processes. We see this as part of our responsibility in honouring our Treaty relationship with the Crown and our responsibility to our future generations.

Please assist us in ensuring that the Crown honours their Treaty obligations as well. After all, we are all in this together.

- Chief Allan Adam, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation
- Chief Roxanne Marcel, Mikisew Cree First Nation
- Fort Chipewyan, Alberta, November 30, 2010