Many people may have heard of a major train derailment that occurred March 7 near Gogama, Ontario. There was earlier one February 14, also near Gogama. What many don’t realize is just how traumatic this kind of disaster was for people living in the small town and in Mattagami First Nation. The March 7 derailment involved 94 tanker cars carrying crude oil from Alberta; 35 cars left the track and caused five tanker cars to fall into the Makami River, which leads into the Lake Mattagami watershed.

There were fires caused by both these derailments and it took days to put them out. The March 7 derailment fire actually had Mattagami First Nation and the town of Gogama on alert for evacuation.

In talking to my friends in Mattagami, I was relieved to find out that the Wabun Tribal Council, which Mattagami First Nation is part of, reacted quickly. Wabun Executive Director Shawn Batise, Chief Walter Naveau and the Mattagami First Nation Council activated a community crisis plan and met with Canadian National (CN) management officials to ensure the safety of community residents. They also affirmed their role in the managing, monitoring and cleanup of the spill.

As Chief Naveau pointed out, these spills have a devastating effect on the water and the land. Even though the cleanup in the short term has produced good results, nobody knows how serious contamination is. It could take years to determine the extent of the damage.

When these spills happen on the land and in particular on traditional lands of First Nation people, there is shock and sadness within the community. I know firsthand how the Elders understand the land. In their teachings, we are taught that everything is connected. All of life moves about on the land, in the water and in the skies. We believe this planet that we are living on is in fact a living breathing entity.

What seems to be just a simple spill to many people is far more serious in the eyes of First Nation people. Not long ago our ancestors lived and travelled on all these traditional lands in the north. The rivers and lakes were our highways and we drank from them, harvested fish from them and we also gathered food from the land to survive.

Back in those days before Indian reserves, my people roamed vast areas of land. We were nomadic and it was not uncommon for the people of the James Bay area to travel as far south as Mattagami and vice versa.

As Chief Naveau pointed out, First Nation people still live off the land and practice their traditional pursuits on their territories. When the land is damaged by spills or other mishaps it has a great effect on Native people nearby.

Although leaders like Chief Naveau understand the importance of economics, providing employment and business opportunities for people, he also believes that First Nation leaders are not prepared to think of profit at any cost. There has to be a balance between our taking from the land and generating economic benefits while at the same time taking care of the environment. In the long run, we will all suffer the consequences of not caring about our environment to the degree that we should.

The transportation of crude oil and other hazardous products by rail or pipeline has been happening for a long time and it is even more prevalent today. As Shawn Batise explained, First Nations are being asked to pick their poison, either transporting oil by rail or moving it by pipeline. Both options present the same problems in terms of accidental spills on the land and water.

One thing that both of these leaders are sure about is that there will continue to be disasters and spills in the future. First Nation leadership is developing preparedness for such disasters and they are lobbying government and corporations to put in place the ways and means to limit these calamities that end up causing us a lot of grief and aggravation. This land is our land.