New Chief prepares for tarsands fight
Posted by mhudema on August 19, 2008
|The Edmonton Journal|
FORT CHIPEWYAN – It’s mealtime at the Fort Chipewyan water conference and Chief Allan Adam leaves the food lineup with two brimming plates of roast beef. But as he wades through the crowd to his seat, he ends up giving his food away to others.
The second time it happens, he laughs about being such a soft touch, and wonders whether people will let him pass to the front of the line again.
He needn’t worry. On his third try, he manages to secure a meal for himself.
Residents of this remote, fly-in community, nearly 600 kilometres north of Edmonton, say the youthful, light-hearted new chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan has revitalized them with his enthusiasm and his charm, but that he’s definitely no soft touch.
That could be bad news for oilsands companies and a provincial government seemingly intent on dramatically boosting bitumen production to meet the world’s thirst for oil.
“If they want to play hard ball, he’s willing to push back a little bit, and he won’t settle for second best,” says tribal councillor Anthony Ladouceur, 28. “He’s flexible, but he has to address the concerns of his community.”
The Edmonton-born Adam, 41, has been chief for 10 months, but has already cracked Alberta Venture magazine’s 2008 list of the 50 most influential Albertans.
He made it clear in two speeches on the weekend that he plans to hold oilsands companies and government accountable for environmental damage to the Athabasca watershed, and that he’ll do so through the courts, if necessary.
“Enough is enough. If they don’t meet the concerns and the positions of the First Nations on sustainability and protection of the environment — if they just keep doing what they are doing — we have no other choice but to go to court,” he said in an interview. “We want justice for the environment, for the land, the water and the air.”
Mikisew Cree Chief Roxanne Marcel welcomes the help on the frontlines of the battle with oilsands giants. The Cree have intervened five times at oilsands application hearings, but every project has gone ahead despite their objections.
“Chief Adam has been really vocal about what he would like to see done, and it has helped the fight,” says Marcel. “Once we start working together, I think it will open a lot of eyes.”
Adam, the youngest of 10 children in a trapper’s family, had a reputation in his youth as a scrapper, and he carries the scars of a few fights on his body.
“He grew up in a rough environment,” said John Rigney, a former shop teacher who has known Adam since he was a child. “He’s been through his share of troubles, but he has always had a dream that he would be something.”
Rigney says the chief’s commitment and enthusiasm is refreshing in a former fur-trading community that has seen hard times.
“He observes information so fast and he can synthesize it into new ideas, and he can listen to advice from different people and somehow make decisions that are satisfactory to everyone,” he says. “He has emerged smarter than the rest of us. To many people, it’s a surprise, but not to me. We think he will go far.”
Adam, now a father of five with three grandchildren, says he had a happy childhood, living on the land, swimming, canoeing, boating, hunting and trapping.
“I did a lot of looking after myself,” he says with a wry grin.
He says a vivid scar above the dimple on his right cheek was the result of 10 stitches he received at age 12, when his nephew threw a bottle instead of the ball at him during a baseball game. “We both laugh about that now and then.”
Adam dropped out of school after Grade 7 and did an assortment of jobs in Fort McMurray and Edmonton — truck-driving, forestry work, even working briefly for Syncrude — before eventually returning to Fort Chipewyan to stay.
He was hired by the Athabasca Chipewyan in 1998 to help build houses in the community. Three years later, he was foreman of a construction crew.
Adam, whose trapper father also served on tribal council, says he became interested in politics at age 16 and always kept an eye on the provincial and federal political scene, and what worked for politicians and what didn’t.
At the urging of some band members who heard him speak at a meeting, he ran for council about five years ago and won.
Last year, counselled by the tribal elders, he made his successful bid for the chief’s job.
He said he was motivated by the previous council’s inability to implement its plans. It had good ideas, he said, “but they would never get done.”
His arrival as chief has brought new hope to a community that has long felt forgotten, says Athabasca Chipewyan member Lionel Lepine, 30.
“People want to hear him, and when he speaks, everybody listens. He gives the whole community a sense of hope.”
Elder Pat Marcel, 70, says it’s a steep learning curve, and Adam has major challenges.
“Allan will be a very great leader, but it takes time,” he said. “You don’t get all this knowledge in one year. You have to really listen. He has to fix this world.”
Liberal MLA David Swann, who attended the weekend water conference, said he was moved by the chief’s passion.
“He’s like a young guy, but he has the maturity and depth of experience to talk from his heart and demand change and not back down. I could see he was close to tears at the end of his speech.”
Rigney says Adam is as comfortable meeting with industry executives as he is chatting with community members.
“He has his detractors, but I guess everyone does.”
Alice Martin, a former Mikisew Cree tribal councillor, says she’s not convinced the community is ready to wage war on the government and the oilsands.
“All the people here are very angry about what is going on, and some of the people want to fight right now, but we’re not ready. We have to prepare our people for battle.”
She worries Adam and others are moving too far ahead of the community.
Adam says he will prepare his people to fight and he will pick the battle.
“You don’t go into a fight knowing you will lose.”
He favours negotiation over confrontation and scoffs at the idea of civil disobedience.
“There are advantages to negotiations and disadvantages to roadblocks,” he says. “Besides, where are you going to set up a roadblock in Fort Chip?”