The decision to approve an exploratory oilsands winter drilling program on Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) territory last week has the First Nation upset that concerns raised at recent public hearings were ignored.
The Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) gave the go-ahead to Teck Resources last Tuesday to drill 177 evaluation wells on the west side of the Athabasca River in an area defined by ACFN as critical habitat of the Roland Lake Bison herd – a species at risk in the province.
The wells are part of an exploratory program to support Teck’s proposed Frontier mine project, also currently under review.
ACFN submitted concerns to the regulator at public hearings in Fort McMurray in August, arguing that the drilling project would have direct and adverse impacts on the ability of the First Nation’s members to exercise their constitutional harvesting rights, which are tied to the protection of land, water and wildlife like bison.
The AER found that the exploratory program would be “localized, temporary and of short duration,” and as such would not adversely impact Aboriginal rights.
ACFN Chief Allan Adam said another approval signals the province will “stop at nothing” to approve further development in the region.
“It would seem seem that our concerns fall on deaf ears and application after application and policy after policy are continually approved without adequate consultation or consideration of our inherent and constitutionally protected Aboriginal and Treaty rights,” he said.
“We’ve had enough. Our elders and members don’t want to see any more destruction of our traditional lands and territory. We have drawn a line in the sand and we don’t want to see any development north of the Firebag River and into our homelands. We will do what it takes to ensure our rights are protected now and into the future.”
A key concern raised by ACFN at the August hearings involved the issue of land tenure. Presently, the Crown is not required to consult with Aboriginal governments when issuing leases, which the First Nation argued fails to address impacts that exploratory projects have on First Nations rights and title.
The Teck project comes on the heels of several other recent approvals in the region also contested by ACFN, including Shell’s Jackpine open-pit mine expansion project, despite the board noting that in combination with other existing, approved and planned projects, the mine “would likely have significant adverse cumulative environmental impacts” on everything from wetlands to wildlife and Aboriginal traditional land use.
Adam said the issue not only affects ACFN, but other First Nations in the region, such as the Fort McKay First Nation, which is appealing the recent approval of Athabasca Oil Sands’ Dover project near its Moose Lake reserve.
Fort McKay had requested a 20-km buffer zone around the project in order to protect the area they claim is their last refuge for practicing traditional rights, as the community is currently surrounded on three sides by oilsands development.
Alberta’s highest court okayed the request for appeal last Monday.
“If people really understood the government of Alberta has been pushing full steam ahead regardless of the impacts to the public and evidence I would hope they would be appalled,” Adam said. “The actions of the AER demonstrate that the government is failing miserably to uphold their obligations under the law. When we start making positive changes within the law, they simply change that too.”
All three project approvals hinge upon the land use provisions set out in the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP), also currently being contested by several First Nations, including ACFN.
ACFN claims LARP does not address or provide protections for treaty and Aboriginal rights, traditional land use or culture, and instead identifies bitumen extraction as a priority.
“We have tried to resolve our issues within the limitation of the regulatory system, the courts and even on the streets,” said Eriel Deranger, communications coordinator for ACFN. “Yet nothing changes; it’s business as usual for industry while our rights are slowly being phased out along with the pristine biodiversity and culture in the region.”1 comment