A groundbreaking study traces toxins from Alberta's oilsands to northern Alberta's wildlife, vegetation and a cluster of cancer cases among First Nations in the region.

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A groundbreaking study traces toxins from Alberta's oilsands to northern Alberta's wildlife, vegetation and a cluster of cancer cases among First Nations in the region.

Never heard of it? That's no surprise.

Apart from a statement on the University of Manitoba website and an online link to years of research, there was no flashy announcement last July. No headlines warning of dire findings. No public response of note from government or industry.

So activists determined to expose what they see as deadly spinoffs are reaching for the playbook of 1960s U.S. civil rights activists. And they're sticking with their high-profile advocates -- such as actor Leonaro di Caprio and Canadian rocker Neil Young.

Stéphane McLachlan, the Winnipeg scientist who authored the study, was disappointed with the response.

"The government responded by ignoring the whole thing. They had no choice. If they had recognized there was a problem, it would have been a slippery slope," the scientist shrugged.

The study, Environmental and Human Health Implications of the Athabasca Oilsands for the Mikisew Cree and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations, breaks ground for how it was done, a point he underscored.

"The results are grounded in the environmental sciences but also in traditional knowledge. Unlike any of the other studies, it had been actively shaped and controlled by both the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and the Mikisew Cree First Nation from the outset," said McLachlan, co-ordinator for the U of M's Environmental Conservation Laboratory.

The university was a funder, too, but the people who paid for most of the work, Mikisew Cree and the ACFN, warned him to expect nothing less. Environmental science isn't just about science anymore.

Called the biggest industrial project on earth and the biggest natural bitumen deposit on the planet, the Athabasca oilsands are praised in slick government TV advertisements.

Environmentalists assail the network of pipelines, citing impacts on climate, air and water. Chief among the criticisms are the greenhouse gases released as a byproduct of the extraction process, along with toxic metals.

McLachlan's study produced evidence of high concentrations of heavy metals in animals. Twenty of 94 Cree residents monitored in the health study were diagnosed with cancer -- higher than Canadian averages.

There are more collaborative efforts between scientists, environmentalists and indigenous people. But McLachlan's work predates that by about a decade.

"The traditional knowledge makes the science much stronger," McLachlan said.

The first samples collected from hunters in the Peace-Athabasca River delta failed to turn up a single contaminant. Yet cancer cases were soaring among people who worked in the oil fields and relied on game and fish for food.

Elders pointed out the game was probably healthy. Hunters don't shoot lame moose, water fowl or muskrat. Try the beaver, try the willow, they suggested.

"They were not researchers. They were looking pragmatically at what we'd done... what we had to do is look at what kind of animal lives in polluted areas as well as clean areas," McLachlan said. "That's when they suggested beaver. They said 'Look, beaver occur in both areas.' "

The scientists found pay dirt in tests on beavers and in samples of willow, which soaks up toxins through its roots. From there, the science traced the effects on human health, including the cancer rates.

"These exercises showed the oilsands were having an explicit and significant effect on human health. The occurrence of cancer embodied both the science and the traditional knowledge," McLachlan said.

The funders had benefited from appearances by South Africa's Bishop Desmond Tutu and Young's tour.

"I will add," said Susanne McCrea of the Boreal Action Project, "the fact ACFN and the Mikisew Cree had to go to extreme lengths to get independent science and to get their message out with the help of Neil Young and Leonardo Di Caprio shows just how loud they've had to scream for anybody to hear them."

McCrea is overseeing a website for the work called One River News.

That the publicity stirred up controversy was acceptable, even if Young backpedalled in at least one interview devoted to his Honour the Treaties tour, insisting he really wasn't on an "anti-tar sands crusade."

The backstory to how celebrities became involved rested largely on the shoulders of a 35-year-old mother, Eriel Deranger, an indigenous advocate. She doesn't see herself as an environmentalist.

Deranger is the communications co-ordinator for the ACFN. An activist since the age of seven when a Grade 2 book report at a Winnipeg school got the book pulled for its stereotypical depiction of indigenous people, she now pulls strategies from the playbooks of Martin Luther King and others.

"We have this historical prejudice in our country where we look at aboriginal people as people who just complain about everything and just want more," Deranger said. "So when you have the usual suspects say the usual things, you don't want to hear it. But when you get the usual suspects sitting alongside people who are looked at as having real authority and conviction, those groups hold weight with certain demographics."

Twenty years after the first court victories, treaty rights are finally gaining a toehold of respect, she added. It helps that Athabasca Chipewyan aren't anti-oil and don't live on a reserve. The band membership of 1,200 has rights to traditional territory, but live mostly in places such as Fort Chipewyan and Fort McMurray. They also belong to a multimillion conglomerate of service companies that cater to the oil industry.

"The civil rights movement wasn't won just by black people," Deranger said. "It was brought on by deciding to let go of historical grievances and reaching out to your allies and collectively working with them."

Deranger posted a YouTube documentary on the Cree plight and that's what hooked Young. She took phone calls from some "laid-back hippie types." Young's people, she said.

"They said Darryl Hannah and Neil Young are interested in coming to visit the tar sands and they would love to meet your people," Deranger said. "They came and it was fantastic. We did not ask him to host the benefit concerts."

Young made that offer on the six-hour drive from the Edmonton airport to Fort McMurray. "He said, 'You know Eriel... I feel like it's time I give something back. I want to work with you and your people. What can I do to help?"

She told him about the band's enormous legal fees from fighting big oil in court. By the time Young's hybrid car rolled into Fort McMurray, he'd hatched the Honour the Treaties Tour.

The activist sees a shift -- indigenous peoples' rights integrated into the environmental movement.

"Over the last 10 years... the environmental movement has recognized it's not just about saving the forest. It's a global imperative to save the planet. Which means saving humanity, which includes themselves," Deranger said.

In 2015, an hour-long documentary will use McLachlan's study as the backdrop to Young's tour. McLachlan said television ads lionizing Canada's energy policy and the oilsands prove it takes more than science to change attitudes.

"Industry and governments working together have this incredible ability to permeate our lives with their messages," he said. "What's essential is that all of us are working to get the whole diversity of messages out there, not just the message government and industry want."