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Outspoken chief was once 'quiet kid'

Outspoken chief was once 'quiet kid'

By Darcy Henton, Edmonton Journal
January 25, 2010

George Poitras looked out the window of his Fort McMurray office and saw opportunity. Outside the restaurant across the street was Premier Ed Stelmach's face beaming at him from the side of a bus.

It was Feb. 15, 2008, and the leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives was campaigning for re-election in the oilsands city. Earlier that morning Stelmach had dismissed a report describing the oilsands as "the most destructive development on earth," calling it the rantings of silk-suited Park Avenue environmentalists.

Poitras, who worked as a consultation co-ordinator for the Mikisew Cree, said he knew the premier was coming to town, but hadn't planned to confront him.

"When we noticed this bus pulling up with a picture of the premier as big as the bus, it was like 'Holy Cow! The premier is going to the Garden Cafe. I have to go there.' "

Poitras dashed across the street and politely inquired why the premier was dismissing health concerns being raised by Fort Chipewyan residents. Stelmach responded by saying he wasn't dismissing the community's claims that their health was being affected by oilsands development and he agreed to consider the community's request for a baseline health study.

The exchange, captured on Alberta radio and TV newscasts and in newspapers, blasted Poitras into the media spotlight. Since that day, the former Mikisew Cree chief has been the most prominent spokesman for Fort Chipewyan and has taken aboriginal concerns about the pace and scope of oilsands development to Ottawa, Washington and London's Trafalgar Square. He wrote a column in Britain's Guardian newspaper decrying the oilsands as "bloody oil" that is killing his people.

But he wasn't always so brazen.

John Rigney, who taught Poitras Grade 8 math and science, describes him as "a quiet kid."

"He was a diligent student, but he didn't stand out at the time."

Rigney said Poitras grew up when Fort Chipewyan, Alberta's oldest community, was struggling through the collapse of the fur trade. "He knows what poverty is all about."

But Poitras was a compassionate teen. He won awards for being his school's most helpful student and in 1983 was awarded an Alberta Junior Citizen of the Year award for his involvement in school and church activities and for caring for his ailing grandmother.

A year later he won a Canada World Youth trip to Somalia where he spent six weeks planting bushes in sand dunes to prevent erosion.

After he finished school, Poitras moved to Edmonton to work as the typesetter at the aboriginal newspaper Windspeaker, eventually moving up to editing and reporting. Following that he worked for aboriginal housing and a bank.

Some time after 1987, Poitras applied under new federal legislation for the Indian status his grandfather on his father's side had voluntarily given up. Although both of Poitras' parents were Cree, his mother lost her status when she married his father, who had lost his when his grandfather was 'disenfranchised.'

At age 33 and still single, Poitras went back to school and obtained a degree in business administration from Athabasca University. He worked for a B.C. aboriginal health agency before returning to Fort Chip as band administrator.

"I wanted to come home and make a difference, but I wasn't able to."

When the next election was called, he came up with "the crazy, silly notion" to run for chief. He thought it was an impossible dream, but he won. His emphasis on ensuring the elders had decent housing won him grudging respect.

As chief, he defended treaty rights by launching and winning a Supreme Court of Canada case against a federal government plan to build a winter road through Mikisew land.

But Poitras says during the time he served as chief from 1999 to 2002 he was unaware of the extent of the environmental impacts on his community from upstream oilsands development.

It was only after concerns were raised about the high rate of rare cancers in the community that he became alarmed.

After two years on the front lines of the aboriginal and environmental battle against oilsands development, Poitras, now 46, quietly left his job with the Mikisew Cree last month. He says oilsands companies complained to his band council about his environmental activism and he quit after he was directed to refrain from talking to the media.

"I chose to leave the Mikisew because I couldn't stay in a situation where I couldn't speak freely."

But Poitras vows to continue advocating for the community of 1,200 and he's heading to Norway in February to keep up the fight. He says he can do more now working on the campaign full time and he has found benefactors to fund his efforts.

Athabasca Chipewyan Lionel Lepine says Poitras took Fort Chip's story to the world.

"It's a pretty ugly story to tell, but it has to be told."

Lepine says Poitras encouraged people, including himself, to shake off their fears and speak out for their children and grandchildren.

"If it hadn't been for him, this town would have remained silent. He really opened up a lot of peoples' eyes, minds and hearts."

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal


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