Alberta ― A coalition of Athabasca Region First Nations (“ARFN”: Athabasca Chipewyan, Chipewyan Prairie Dene, Fort McKay First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nations) are disappointed with the Alberta government’s opposition to the federal Bill C-69, An Act to Enact the Impact Assessment Act and the Canadian Energy Regulator Act.
These Nations also dispute the characterization of Alberta’s regulatory regime stated over the past month by Premier Rachel Notley and, on Oct. 25, by Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips, who was in Ottawa to lobby against the federal Bill.
In a statement issued October 25, 2018, Minister Phillips cited Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan to demand the federal government “[e]xempt in-situ oil sands projects … from federal assessment as they already face a rigorous environmental review process in Alberta.” ARFN members remind Alberta that its climate plan is regrettably silent on cumulative effects and Treaty rights.
ARFN members are intimately acquainted with oil sands development, including being party to significant partnerships with oil sands companies. In contrast to Notley’s and Phillips’ declarations, we know through experience that Alberta’s regulatory regime is not “rigorous” because it fails to meaningfully address cumulative effects and consistently disregards the constitutionally guaranteed rights of First Nations, note the ARFN leaders.
“Alberta still fails to grasp the importance of meaningful First Nations consultation to address cumulative effects and impacts on constitutionally guaranteed Treaty rights,” stated Chief Jim Boucher, Fort McKay First Nation.
Minister Phillips’ response to media during a press conference in Ottawa glossed over the environmental impacts and significant risks associated with in situ oil sands development, especially as companies deploy new recovery technologies.
Minister Phillips said in situ projects are routinely assessed under Alberta’s environmental assessment process because they are large and associated with upgraders. The ARFN leaders remarked, “In reality, in situ projects tend to be small, modular, and often proposed as pilots, which excludes them from provincial assessment, and only once has an in situ project included an upgrader since shut down. The era of large oil sands mines is likely over; when Minister Phillips suggests that in situ development should not require a federal assessment, she essentially advocates that oil sands growth not be subject to environmental assessment at all.”
“The First Nations of the Athabasca region are perhaps the most heavily impacted Indigenous communities on the planet by resource extraction,” stated Chief Allan Adam, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. “Believe me, Alberta’s regulatory system is nothing to brag about. The Minister’s characterization of existing regulations and their ability to promote industrial development while balancing environmental needs and Treaty rights is grossly overstated.”
ARFN will challenge Minister Phillips’ position more directly during our Chiefs’ appearance in Ottawa before the Senate committee that is reviewing Bill C-69 in the coming weeks. The Fort McKay First Nation has conducted a technical analysis of proposed in situ recovery technologies, using the Alberta Energy Regulator’s own data, that shows Alberta’s blithe assertion its climate plan deals with the only concern within federal jurisdiction is mistaken. The plan is no reason to exempt in situ projects from federal review, especially when 80 percent of all future oil sands growth will be from in situ development. Canada’s largest industrial project cannot be dismissed from environmental assessment. Our Nations are deeply skeptical Alberta has sufficient understanding of evolving in situ technologies to safely regulate the oil sands industry or that it has any intention to protect an Indigenous way of life practiced for millennia.
Bill C-69 also includes important measures that enable Indigenous peoples across Canada to more fully participate in resource management decisions. Alberta’s track record in this area is deeply frustrating, which is another reason ARFN members support some features of the new Bill and the continued involvement of the federal government to assess oil sands development projects.
“Alberta could enhance investor certainty globally if it would enter into honest negotiations with First Nations to mitigate the impacts of oil sands development rather than sweep its impacts under a flawed regulatory carpet,” noted Chief Archie Waquan, Mikisew Cree First Nation. “We support sustainable oil sands development and we can work together to develop a genuinely world-class regulatory system but only if Alberta acknowledges its current failures.
The ARFN leaders assert the following: “Alberta cannot continue to seek simple solutions to complex issues. Alberta’s political leaders continue to regulate as though there is a simple check box solution to climate change, cumulative effects, and the protection of First Nations rights, including human health. This does Albertans a disservice. These Nations have supported responsible, sustainable oil sands development that benefits all Albertans. We do not support the despoliation of the environment and evisceration of our rights by hammering a square regulatory peg into a round constitutional hole.
“Minister Phillips was right when she said “these things are too important to get wrong. We can’t fix a broken system by implementing another broken system.” Alberta consistently relies upon existing policies to mitigate impacts to rights, even though they were not designed for this purpose and are demonstrably incapable of doing so.”
The ARFN calls for Premier Notley and Minister Phillips to fix Alberta’s broken system, to acknowledge that in situ development requires a more rigorous review that includes the federal government, and to renew its support for measures that will enable Albertans and First Nations to work together to secure a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren that respects and protects our rights and traditions.