Voices of the Athabasca
Janice Pitman
Athabasca area farmer


Canadian geese noisily proclaim their residence on Little Pine Creek for the summer. A White-throated sparrow sings clearly and sweetly O Canada, Canada, Canada. Tender pale green leaves speak of the strength of the earth to cleanse and renew. My mind wanders back to my youth as I ran barefoot through the woods and fields. A native woman raised my father during his early years and he passed to his children some of the knowledge of the balance and cycles of nature he learned from her and her family. After the Second World War farmers were convinced by government education programs to use chemicals on their farms for pest control and increased crop production. There was little understanding of the ecological and social degradation that would come from the "Green Revolution". The least of which is the breakdown of the family farm and rural community structure as we are ether pushed to keep expanding and taking over our neighbor's property or to get out of farming.

The farmers and their children had ongoing exposure to pesticides like DDT, lindane, and 2, 4, 5-T, which were marketed as safe. They had little or no knowledge of how this exposure and the cumulative effects would impact our health and the health of the land. Children had health issues throughout their young lives and many parents died in their forties and fifties. Consequently farmers of my generation have either done their research on chemical exposure and how to mitigate the effects or suffer chronic health issues. I was angered and dismayed to hear Alberta's premier blame the rare and aggressive cancers that are killing the people of Ft. Chip on the indigenous people eating too much junk food. Ft. Chip is obviously a hot spot for pollution from varied sources, predominantly the tar sands development.

The time to help the people of Ft. Chip is now. It is criminal to allow people to suffer and die in the name of politics and profit. We must restructure our political and economic decisions to accommodate the realities of nature and the needs and rights of the people in the impacted area, including the indigenous peoples. In the interim we must help the impacted communities to safeguard their health through programs that supply the needed doctors and assistants trained in environmental health, facilities, and money. For aboriginal people, working class people, and small farmers respect is long overdue.

By ignoring and suppressing the knowledge and inventiveness of people that live close to the earth and work with their hands the world misses opportunities to harness skills for solving global problems, concerning climate change, biodiversity, and food production (Botkin 2000). Allowing the degradation of the health and social economic structures of these peoples is a moral and spiritual issue that may cost the world dearly, for biological nature is made up of complex systems science barely understands. People living and working close to nature have a connection to the earth that can give insight into ecological issues, which may not be explainable by science.

Through nature people are introduced to transcendence…most people are either awakened to or are strengthened in their spiritual journey by experiences in the natural world (Low 2005). Wilderness is disappearing from our children's lives and they are hungry for it. A girl speaks of the wild area she played in over many years: "... and then they just cut the woods down, it was like they cut down part of me" (Low 2005).

I have seen this in the Little Pine Valley when the land across the valley was clear-cut, and my mother couldn't sleep for the sound of the saws and the ache in her heart.

Oil development cuts more trees in Alberta Pacific's (ALPAC's) forest management area (FMA) then forestry does, and our present law does not require oil land to be reforested. Oil leases are difficult to reforest due to the measure of forest floor disturbance, and many leases from as far back as the 1950s are still not tree covered. Scientists have worked for many years trying to establish trees and wetlands on recovered open pit mines where tar sands have been removed with little success. ALPAC now competes with local farmers for land for tree plantations. ALPAC's goal is to increase this tree plantation acreage each year to help replace FMA acres displaced by oil development.

Climate change, long winters lingering into spring, and low moisture during the growing season is impacting both wildlife and farming in Alberta. It is necessary to have more input from consumers and the government to address this issue. Even if we could reduce emissions today there would still be a recovery period, but our emissions and population are both increasing. A 30% reduction in agricultural production in North America is predicted over the next twenty years if we cannot adjust to changing climatic circumstances and stop soil degradation largely created by the green revolution. Farms need to be smaller, diversified and more labor intensive. Farming today in North America consumes over 35% of the fossil fuels used; this is strongly contributed to by corporate farming with the practices of monoculture that requires heavy chemical use. To preserve the intergenerational knowledge of our fourth and fifth generation mixed farmers we must keep them on the land. Once these farmers are displaced, as so many have already been, by the cost price squeeze it may be very difficult if not impossible to bring them back. The added pressure on land availability and prices from the ALPAC tree plantations, and urban sprawl has intensified the price squeeze in the Athabasca area.

The Fort McMurray bedroom community impact in the Athabasca farming area has changed the local social and economic structure and the impact is soon to be increased with the development of the energy corridor along Highway 63 from Boyle north to Wandering River. These people are from the city, they often buy 80 acres or full 1/4 sections, and they are not farmers. Livestock is purchased or brought in to graze the land. It is not uncommon to see degradation of pastures, soil, woodlands and wetlands, as well as animals abused or neglected from ignorance. Farmers are not exempt from mistakes, but are driven to seek knowledge they may lack as the land and animals provide their livelihood.

The scientific community has expressed deep doubts about humanities response to the environment; scientific data, laws, and economic incentives are not enough to evoke meaningful change (Low 2005). Protecting habitat is inescapably a moral issue; science and religion share a core characteristic, that both are humbling to the human experience, as is nature (Low 2005). But people must experience a connection to nature before they are awakened in their spiritual journey, and come to realize we cannot care for God if we do not care for his creation.

Many people in Alberta cannot hear the frogs, although they sing loud and harmoniously in the creeks and wetlands serenading the pink sky of the setting sun.


Literature Cited

Low R. 2005. Last child in the woods, saving our children from nature deficit disorder. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill North Carolina

Botkin D. Quammon D. McPhee J. Stephen J. Marqulis L. 2000. Forces of change a new view of nature. The Smithsonian Institution in association with National Geographic. 256