Contaminants in the Yukon
By Norma Kassi

I was raised on Old Crow Flats in northern Yukon. Old Crow Flats is one of the world's great wetlands, having more than 2000 lakes throughout 600,000 hectares just above the Arctic Circle. The name of my people—Vuntut Gwitchin—means "the caribou people of the lakes." We've lived here for thousands and thousands of years. 

For a long time I've watched the birds come back to Old Crow Flats every spring. I remember, when I was about ten years old, sitting with my grandfather at one very special lake where a lot of birds used to come. They would land there, play, and meet one another after their long trip. They made a lot of noise, they were singing, they were happy, they were telling stories—loons, swans, geese, and others I know only in my own language. 

My grandfather said to me, "You know, some day when you're a woman you're going to see a lot of changes. When there's only loons out there, you're going to know then that something's wrong with the land and with the weather." 

That was thirty years ago. Now I go back to Old Crow Flats every three or four years, and I see the changes in the land. I sit at that same spot and I remember my grandfather's words. Every time I return I see fewer animals, fewer fish, fewer birds. The water is silent and so crystal clear I can see to the bottom. There used to be so much activity, so much aquatic life—such as insects and little shrimp-like things that are food for other animals like muskrat—that I couldn't see to the bottom. Now I can. And now I see a pair of loons out there, and that's about it. 

I work in the Northern Contaminants Program and as Environmental Co-ordinator for the Council of Yukon First Nations, and for many years during the fight to save our caribou I've been watching the land closely. Six years ago, at one of the places I used to fish with my grandfather, I caught a fish with sores and soft flesh. When I went back this spring, there were no fish. There are changes to the pattern of the caribou migration and to the behaviour and populations of beaver and muskrat. The migratory birds still come, but they're not as abundant as they once were. We used to pick a few of their eggs, but now we don't bother because they don't taste very good. On the land, the plants grow much faster than before, but have very few berries on them. 

We hear about contamination coming into the Arctic, WB radiation, and alarming accounts of elevated PCB levels in our neighbours, the Inuit people. Yet we hear conflicting information about the level of danger. We're beginning to see deformities in our animals, lesions and softening of the flesh of our fish, and the eradication of habitat for migratory animals. I am very concerned for our immediate future and for the health of our people in the next generation. 

Because of such concerns, the Council of Yukon First Nations did a study of traditional foods with the Centre of Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment at McGill University. We checked for contaminants in approximately 400 samples of foods and plants that Yukon First Nations people consume. We also did dietary studies and analyzed the nutrient value of foods. 

The results show some levels of contaminants in our foods. A few areas, such as Lake Laberge and Carcross, have particularly elevated levels. Among the contaminants that have shown up are toxaphene, PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), dioxin, and furans. Cadmium has been found in caribou kidneys in southern Yukon. In northern Yukon, we're concerned about radiation affecting the caribou herd. 

We also looked at the nutrient value of Yukon "country foods" in comparison with market foods and found that it far outweighs the risk from contaminants. We fear, however, that Aboriginal peoples are moving away from traditional foods towards market foods. Non-Aboriginal people living in the Arctic can survive well on store-bought foods, but indigenous peoples cannot. Most of us can't afford good vegetables and good meat; nor do we like to eat a lot of vegetables and fruit. The diet that suits us comes from the land, from the animals, fish, birds, and plants. The Elders say if we eat market foods we will die faster; already we see increased levels of cancer and chronic disease among our people. 

Another concern is the cumulative effect of all these contaminants. How might the accumulation of DDT, mercury, cadmium, heavy metals, POPs, PCBs, toxaphene—I can't even name them all—affect our health? The First Nations people are at the top of the food chain in Yukon. We need traditional foods to stay healthy, but contaminants that affect the food chain will hit us hardest of all. Already there are cases of serious contamination of traditional food sources in parts of southern Yukon, and chiefs of the southern Yukon First Nations are demanding immediate clean-up of all local sources of contaminants. 

Traditional knowledge and long-term observation tell us that changes are happening far too fast. World leaders must make some decisions soon. Local bans on the use of chemicals are not enough, since banned chemicals are being manufactured and used in other countries and, because of global air and water circulation patterns, end up in the Arctic, where they persist far longer than they would in warmer countries. The use and manufacture of these chemicals must be stopped at the source. 

Indigenous peoples should be involved at every level—from local to national and international—of negotiation regarding chemicals and persistent organic pollutants. We must be permitted to share our intimate knowledge of the Arctic and to take part in the process of decision making. If industry negotiates only with industry and governments, then the decisions made will reflect an improper balance between economics and the health of the Arctic and Arctic peoples. 

I'm optimistic that if world leaders really get concerned and begin to listen to indigenous peoples, we can address this issue for the long term. Communication is important. Scientists and governments need to tell the truth about all contaminants and involve us in discussion. We have to be true partners in this and be honest with each other. It is the indigenous peoples who have to live with the consequences of contamination, and it's not a good legacy to leave for our children. 

If the situation stays the way it is now, with indigenous peoples on the outside of negotiations, we can never restore health to the Arctic.

Norma Kassi is Environmental Co-ordinator, Council of Yukon First Nations.

"In This Issue..."