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Focus on environment

By Daron Letts
Northern News Services
Updated Friday, November 7, 2008

NWT - Born in 1927, Mary Heron grew up on the land in the Thebacha region at a time when water was fresh, clean and plentiful.

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Tu Beta Ts'ena, or Water is Life, is a new documentary about the impact of the Alberta Tar Sands on the Mackenzie water basin in the North. The documentary is available for sale through the Akaitcho Territory Government. - photos courtesy of Aggie Brockman

Her grandmother would cut a baking powder tin in half, bend the sharp edges over with pliers and Heron would carry it looped through her belt to use as a cup wherever she went.

"You could go any place and dip a cup in any river or lake and drink it," she recalled. "Can you do that today?"

Heron is among the voices featured in a new film created by director Alex Czarnecki with Terry Woolf that premiered in Yellowknife and Calgary last month. Tu Beta T'sena, or Water is Life, explores the issues surrounding the tar sands development in Northern Alberta and its impact on the Mackenzie water basin in the North.

A short history of the tar sands and 1899 treaty negotiations are touched upon in the film.

"I think what's most important with Water is Life is what people are saying in the film and the passion and love they have for their land, water and life and how that all intertwines with their spirituality and a way of life that is very, very special," Czarnecki said.

The filmmaker captured footage of Heron sharing her voice during the water conference held in Fort Smith in August of 2007. Hosted by Smith's Landing First Nation and Salt River First Nation on behalf of the Akaitcho Territory Government, the conference emphasized the First Nations' perspective relating to the integrity and use of water resources.

First Nations delegates from the North and south, scientists, government representatives and spokespeople from a couple of oil companies attended the event.

Heron led a group of children from Fort Smith from age10 to 14 to the front of the room to stand with her as she spoke to the assembly. Some of her words are featured in the documentary.

"The youth are our future leaders. If we don't start talking with them now how are they going to know what the water was like," Heron said. "I told them that it is very important to respect the water and the land because this is what we survive on."

Bill Erasmus, Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief for the NWT, spoke briefly at the conference, as well.

Erasmus attended the film's premiere in Calgary where he networked with First Nations leaders in the south, such as Chief Alan Adam from Fort Chipewyan. In that region, high cancer rates are causing fear and anger.

"They're being very vocal," Erasmus said. "We've been asked to form an alliance with them and we're doing that. We intend to bring this concern to the world and turn it around before it's too late."

The documentary, which is being distributed on DVD through the Akaitcho Territory Government, is an important tool for raising awareness, Erasmus said.

"We are asking for people to sit down for an hour and 15 minutes to watch it," he said. "I think people need to realize that people in the film are not against major development. They're against development that is not sustainable and they want to turn that around."

Great Slave MLA Glen Abernethy encouraged Northerners to view the film during a session of the legislature last month.

"The film is $30 a copy, so it shouldn't cost us too much to get enough copies for all of our schools," he said.

Premier Floyd Roland didn't rule out Abernethy's request.

Copies of the DVD can be obtained by contacting the Akaitcho Territorial Government office in Fort Resolution.

(With files from Mike Bryant)