Voices of the Athabasca
Alice Rigney
Fort Chipewyan elder


I was born on the shores of Lake Athabasca, delivered by my maternal grandmother and raised on the banks of the Athabasca River at a Dene village, called Jackfish. My memories are happy ones as most childhood memories are, a large extended family and many other river families were the people I remember. My dad was a successful trapper, a wonderful gardener, a knowledgeable hunter and a kind, loving father. My mother stood by my dad for 54.5 years; she was a hard worker who raised 16 children with no running water (we did have running water, we ran down to the river with a bucket and ran back up to the house), no electricity so all laundry was done by hand and hung out to dry. She maintained the dogs during the times that dad was away by visiting the net on a daily basis, tended the garden and ran a well-balanced home. Mom was a perfectionist in everything she did, from making dry meat and dry fish, tanning moose hides, sewing moosehide clothing and shoes for everyone in the family, canning in the fall which ensured that we had tasty jams, jellies, pickled goods during the winter months and a clean home. She also expected the same from us.

Jackfish Lake is a tiny village that was home to about five families who lived there year round; in the summer it became a busy place because the whitefish would run and many families from along the river and from Ft. Chipewyan would come to make dry fish. I remember white canvas tents that lined the river banks all the way to Richardson Lake and the numerous nets in the river. The families all came with the sole purpose of making dryfish and from morning to night, that's all we did. We didn't think of it as work, we worked together as a family as the children washed the fish, threw the fish scraps to the seagulls that waited hungrily and kept the black birds away from the hanging fish. This often meant that we took turns getting up at 4 or 5 in the morning and sitting guard. We were a large family and we easily made 2000 dryfish in the summer; a lot of this was kept for the winter and some were sold to those that couldn’t make or didn’t know how to make dryfish, it was guaranteed income for my mom and dad. During this busy time, there were many families and that meant many children and in the evenings we played hide and seek or kick the can or 99 over; those were the memories I treasured. There were 30 kids or more and the laughter that carried through the village, the smoke from the campfires floating over the river, the Elders sitting around campfires exchanging stories over a cup of tea (that never seemed to run dry) and when the children were all put to bed, the silent of the night took over this little Dene village as the night hawks came out with their cries.

Jackfish Lake (on the map it is called Richardson Lake) was a vibrant lake where the white fish spawned, the lake was deep enough that many of the families had their nets in the water, catching 100 white fish per day, it was a meeting place and had been for countless generations. We used the river as a lifeline, we drank the water straight from the river; it was pure enough for us and nobody got sick from drinking it. The water levels were high enough that we were able to boat anywhere. Jackfish Lake is on the edge of the delta; on the south side of the lake is the sand hills and a cemetery that dates back to 200 years, a place where many of our ancestors are buried and with them, a legacy that binds my people to this place I call home. During July, when the mountain run-off would arrive in the delta, it usually meant that the waters overflow the Athabasca banks and all the river families use to move to the lake and live in tents at various places. My family lived just below the cemetery and our daily life included making dryfish, dry meat when dad killed a moose and berry-picking. The children loved this place as we had a whole forest to explore and hide and seek became a game of choice. Life was all about preparing and gathering for the long hard winters.

In the winter months we lived at Jackfish where my dad ran a trap line at Archer Lake with his sons, he would be gone for weeks at a time which meant mom stayed at home and looked at her children and maintained the home. This was the time when she sewed clothing for all us, every year we got brand new moccasins, mitts and parka. When dad got home with his haul of fur which was then cleaned and dried, dad would make a run to the fur buyer's and bring home much needed groceries. My parents didn't have a home in Fort Chipewyan until the late 1960s so when they came into town during the winter months, they usually stayed at cousins and only for a short time as the trap line had to be tended. My mother recalls those days as a time in her life when life was good, bountiful and content.

Then in the 1960s, the Bennett Dam was built, the delta changed forever. The water levels dropped, the muskrats that supplied so many families with much needed income were gone, the lakes dried up, the willows grew where the lakes used to be and our boating is confined to 'high water' that doesn't happen anymore. Families were forced to move off the land and into the community of Ft. Chipewyan where social problems became a norm; this happens when idle hands that knew hard work become docile. Families broke up as alcohol became very prominent, trapping and hunting equipment were sold off for alcohol, and it was a sombre time. A way of life ended.

The oil industry had begun. I remember boating to Ft. McMurray when I was 13 years old and standing on the banks of the Athabasca River at Great Canadian Oil Sands (now Suncor), looking at the start of the clearing of a large areas and looking up at the huge white spruce that lined the river banks. Did I know this was just the beginning of 'the worlds' largest and most destructive project? No. Ft. McMurray was a dirt road, and then there was the Prairie and Waterways, now all three make up the city today, plus more.

My parents tell stories about boating from Jackfish Lake to Ft. McKay to visit relatives, the trip would take a week with many stops along the way as dad would hunt and when a moose was killed, dry meat was made and the moosehide scraped. This process took about three days. There were many families that lived along the river (Cardinals, Hanson, Berninskis, Grant, Trip de Roche, Cyprien, Flett, Boucher, Marten, Courtoreille, Lacaille, McDonald, to name a few) and dad stopped to visit; it was great visiting he recalls as most of these river people homesteaded and didn't leave their homes for a long period of time. Then a day before he arrived in Ft. McKay, he would set a net at an eddy and the morning lift would consist of whitefish, gold eyes, pikes that he brought to his sister in Ft. McKay. He remembers the Athabasca River as a bountiful journey, many friends, many animals and many fish and deep water.

Little by little we started to see a change in our environment. An oil spill that shut the local fishery down for a season, fish that tasted like oil, foul air when the wind blew from the south, river levels that dropped, frogs that just weren't heard anymore, fall migration of birds that didn't stop as their source of food was gone which meant that we didn't have fall hunting, fish with lesions, ducks that were wormy, we don't drink river water anymore instead we bring town drinking water with us, hunting habits changed as the hunters can't hunt in the snyes (oxbow lakes). The oil boom brought more outsiders to our delta; many of these people are from Ft. McMurray who showed no respect or consideration for the land as they leave their garbage behind and take as many fish back with them.

Now, there's no one person who lives at Jackfish Lake year round. When people go out there, it's on their days off as many of them work in the oil patch. My older brother is the only one who makes dryfish in the summer months. There are many times when I go out there and it's quiet, only the ghosts of yesterday live there as I sit by the river outside the house that I grew up in, sitting by the campfire in solitude, close my eyes and in the mind, I see the many children playing, I smell the smoke of many campfires, I hear the laughter and stories of my people and my heart aches for those happy days and all I can do is cry. The tears fall and the pollution keeps coming.