I want you to photograph my last breath

‘I want you to photograph my last breath’ r1 ... BECOME A MEMBER | SHARE THIS NEWSLETTER The Narwhal's masthead logo Man walking on a melting ice road with sunset in the backgroung “I want you to photograph my last breath.”

That’s what Warren Simpson told photojournalist Ian Willms in 2019 as he navigated terminal cancer up in Fort Chipewyan, Alta.

Warren had been diagnosed with a rare form of bile duct cancer known as cholangiocarcinoma. The rate of contracting bile duct and gall bladder cancers in Canada is 0.003 per cent. But it’s not as rare in Fort Chipewyan: there had already been three cases of bile duct cancer identified by 2014, a figure a government report pegged as “higher than expected.”

Ian was well aware. He’d been making reporting trips to northern Alberta communities like Fort McKay and Fort Chip, as locals call it, since 2010 after reading about a doctor who was raising concerns that the oilsands could be causing elevated levels of cancer in the local population.

Warren had spent his adult life working in the oilsands, a few hundred kilometres upstream from Fort Chip. He enjoyed it, he told Ian in his final days, despite also holding the belief that his cancer was linked to the mines.

When Ian came to The Narwhal to pitch us a photo essay on Warren, we knew it was an important story that needed to be published. And so this past weekend, nearly a year in the making, the piece landed on our site: A life — and death — in Fort Chipewyan.

It’s about Warren, but also so much more: health concerns, a failed promise of a federal study and a community that’s grappling with the legacy of residential schools.

I caught up with Ian to learn about how he approached the story and what it was like getting to know a soft-spoken man with a laugh that could fill the room. You can read an excerpt of our chat below, or go here to dive into the full thing.

Take care of yourself and your community,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience
Man crouched down in a field taking a photo on his camera Tell me a little bit about how you ended up starting to visit Fort Chipewyan. It was back in 2010, right?

That’s right. I started reading about Fort Chipewyan in 2008. I was fresh out of school and being a recent student I wasn’t confident enough to just jump on a plane. So I did a lot of research and called the community a few times. By the time I got there, it was 2010.

Even though I didn’t know Warren when I started, Warren was the reason I kept going. Because I remember starting this work and I was hearing about people like Warren — I was hearing about these cancer rates and about people dying too young and what that does to the community, but I had never seen it. And of course I believed it was happening, but I needed to see it to photograph it. And in order to see it, I had to be welcomed into an extremely intimate and exclusive kind of situation with a family. Part of me felt like the work would never be done until I was able to witness that.

How did you build those community relationships over the years and come to eventually meet somebody like Warren?

In a word, it has to happen organically. But the long answer is that you have to approach stories like this with a very clear understanding of your position as an outsider and how you will never be part of the community — but you can come close. And that only comes from being very open and sincere and vulnerable. And particularly as a white city boy coming up to a fly-in, northern Indigenous community, I had to really have a profound degree of respect. And I don’t think there’s any faking that. Sometimes as journalists we might feel like we’re kind of putting it on a bit in order to have certain doors open or get people to talk to us.

But I cared right from the beginning, right from the first time I read about Fort Chip, and that was what I led with. I really gave a shit about what they were going through and the people I met could see that. They could see that I was naive and young, but they could also see I really cared and that I was trying. In a lot of ways Fort Chipewyan taught me to be a good storyteller and a good journalist.
A wall of photos from Warren Simpson's life You mentioned that you met Warren at a birthday party in March 2018. What was that first encounter like and was there anything that stood out to you?

When I first met Warren, I didn’t know he had cancer. I had gone to a birthday party with Alice Rigney. She is a friend of mine in Fort Chip that I met on my first trip there — kind of like a teacher, mentor. She’s a Dene Elder. I went to this birthday party for her grandson. Warren was there because Alice is Warren’s aunt. I remember my first impression of him was he was just a very sweet, soft spoken and kind man with a wonderful laugh. Just a nice guy to be around.

After the party, Alice told me that Warren had cholangiocarcinoma. And I asked Alice if Warren would be comfortable talking to me about that and she said he would. So we met up after that and the relationship took form from there.

I made a point to spend a good amount of time with Warren for the rest of that trip. We drove around in his truck and he liked being photographed so I was taking his picture and we were just chatting a bit about his time working for Suncor. It was an interesting thing to meet somebody who was Indigenous who had worked in industry, who was very open about it, who was also affected by this cancer — because it made the whole story far more grey, in a sense. It was really powerful to talk to Warren about the way he felt about working for industry versus seeing the environmental impacts in his community and ultimately contracting a lethal cancer he believed came from oilsands.

Any final thoughts about working to get this story published?

One of the most important things I would like to say is that I owe a huge thanks to editors Sharon Riley and Denise Balkissoon. They really helped a lot and without them the piece wouldn’t be nearly as effective. So thanks to them especially and everybody at The Narwhal for seeing potential in, and being brave enough to publish, this project in its entirety.

Go here to read the full Q&A with Ian.
BECOME A NARWHAL Photo of wetland with text that reads: Doug Ford wants to overhaul Ontario's environmental protections

The Narwhal gets the docs

Another week in Ontario, another set of documents leaked to The Narwhal.

Reporters Fatima Syed and Emma McIntosh dug through the details for a piece that shows how Premier Doug Ford’s new housing policies are set to weaken or cut environmental protections for parks, wetlands, conservation areas, farms and Indigenous territory. In turns out public servants warned him of the risks of his omnibus legislation — that Indigenous communities could see the cuts as “reducing industry oversight” — but he’s set on moving forward to win support from developers anyway.

Fatima and Emma went live on Instagram with Sam Krishnapillai, founder of the On Canada Project, to break down the latest developments.

Oh, and we posted an explainer to help you digest it all. Do you follow us on Instagram? If not, you should fix that!

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