Champagne gripped by cancer

CHAMPAGNE Frank Chambers doesn’t like the colostomy bag that he has to wear on his waist. The 74-year-old Champagne resident is suffering…


Frank Chambers doesn’t like the colostomy bag that he has to wear on his waist.

The 74-year-old Champagne resident is suffering from colon cancer and doesn’t know why he and so many people in his community are dying from the disease.

But his guess is their drinking water.

“I lost two sisters and a brother (to cancer) already,” Chambers said, laying on his couch on Friday.

“Maybe the water is giving me cancer, I don’t know. Jesus, if it’s as bad as they say it is it’s bound to affect everybody’s house. All the well water’s bad and I guess mine’s the worst.”

Chambers, his nine-year-old daughter and about 20 other Champagne residents were ordered Tuesday to stop drinking their well water following tests on September 1st that found radionuclide levels in seven of 12 wells higher than those permitted by Canadian drinking water quality guidelines.

Radionuclides are the result of decaying uranium and can cause cancer.

An order, which bans the use of well water for food preparation and bathing, was issued for the community by the Champagne/Aishihik First Nations on Friday.

“You can use it to flush your toilet, that’s it,” said Chambers.

The water samples already examined are being tested further to determine what radioactive element is causing the radiation.

All 12 wells along with others owned by the First Nations in the community will be tested this week, according to a Champagne/Aishihik release.

 Following the water ban, the First Nations delivered about nine 195-litre outdoor water tanks on Tuesday filled with potable water from Haines Junction, a source at the First Nations said.

One of the tanks sits on a wood skid outside Chambers’s living-room window.

Though it means he has safe water to drink and brush his teeth with, the tank is too little, too late for Chambers.

“It hasn’t been tested to any extent,” he said bitterly of the history of water testing in Champagne.

The First Nations have been slow to respond to growing concerns in the community about cancer, he added.

“It took somebody to get the bug up their ass. There’s so much cancer in this little community.”

Water testing in Champagne has been the responsibility of a patchwork of different levels of government in the past.

Currently, Champagne/Aishihik First Nations is responsible for water testing in Champagne.

Before the First Nations became self-governing in 1995, water testing in the tiny community — which has been used by First Nations people for hundreds of years and permanently inhabited since the early 1900s — fell under the jurisdiction of Ottawa.

But federal water testing records within Indian and Northern Affairs Canada are difficult to come by.

“We’ve never done any work, as far as I know, on that site at all,” Brett Hartshorne, regional manager of waste management and northern contaminants with Indian Affairs said on Monday.

Indian Affairs’ water resources unit may have tested water at Champagne in the past, but that responsibility was handed to the Yukon government during devolution, which began in 2002, Hartshorne added.

“They may have some records that go back, but not in our program right now.

“I would suggest that when the wells were put in there may have been some routine testing, certainly not by my section though,” he said.

The feds did not give Yukon’s Health and Social Services department any record of water testing in Champagne before 1995, when the community became self-governing, spokesperson Pat Living said in an interview on Monday.

Until recently, water in communities has only been tested for bacterial elements, not chemicals, added Living.

The Yukon government does not currently test the water in the community, she said.

“It’s a private well within First Nation land, which is not within jurisdiction of the Yukon government,” said Living.

Champagne sits along the former route of the Alaska Highway and may have been the site of a Second World War military camp, said Hartshorne.

“It’s extremely unlikely that that had anything to do with the situation, but given the circumstances we’ll certainly continue doing our research.

“We can’t arbitrarily discount that as a source” of the radionuclides in the water, he said.

The most likely cause of the water contamination is naturally occurring uranium, but all possibilities will be looked into, added Hartshorne.

“All the information that we have doesn’t indicate that there was any kind of nuclear activity at Champagne’s military camp,” he said.

Though Chambers is quite sick, several other residents in Champagne appear healthy.

Roy Wabisca is one of them.

The 78-year-old lives next door to Chambers and has lived in Champagne off and on for 60 years, he said.

He doesn’t have a water tank outside his house because doesn’t need one.

“I use river water,” Wabisca said Friday.

The nearby Dezadeash River was part of the testing program, but has so far been found to be clean.

“There’s a lot of cancer ‘round here,” Wabisca said. “One person died already, full of cancer. We don’t know if it’s the water or what.”

Another resident of Champagne, who has lived in the community for more than 20 years, refused to be interviewed about the situation.

She said she felt “fine” and that much of the community is out hunting at the moment.

Champagne/Aishihik chief James Allen visited Champagne last week to assess the situation.

He and most officials with the First Nations have been “too busy campaigning” for the upcoming elections to give the proper amount of attention to the problem, said Chambers bitterly.

“That’s the first time he’s been down here other than a funeral.”

A meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday at the town’s community hall for all residents, citizens and weekend users of water in the Champagne area.

The Yukon’s acting medical health officer, Dr. Robert Bousquet, and several officials from Indian and Northern Affairs, will be in attendance.

“This session is for all residents, citizens and weekend users to attend,” according to a Champagne/Aishihik release.

“At this time we do not know the potential health effects of these toxins. Levels are very, very low, in the parts per billion range.

“However, we do recognize that people are concerned and we are working to identify all the toxins and their individual health impacts.”

Chambers is often quite tired as a result of his colon cancer, he said.

“It comes and goes. Some days you feel good, some days you don’t.”

But speaking of his worries about the water in Champagne being taken seriously by officials, Chambers is full of energy.

“They better well care now,” Chambers said forcefully.

“There’s something definitely wrong here — the water.”