The second time was a charm for Aboriginal leaders associated with an oilsands watchdog group who weeks ago walked out of a meeting with the Alberta government.
The Nov. 17 meeting between Environment Minister Shannon Phillips and the Aboriginal caucus of the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) came as the Alberta government works out what to do about the decision by oil patch companies to cease funding the not-for-profit’s $5 million annual budget in 2016. For 12 years the organization has studied the effects of industry on the air, earth, water and biodiversity in and around Wood Buffalo regional municipality.
“There will always be pressure from industry,” Fort McMurray Metis vice-president Bill Loutitt said. “Even though they’ve made billions in profits here they continue to feel that their shareholders always require more. We’ve got no problem with that but as Aboriginal people, the people we represent are our shareholders and we feel they are being shortchanged.”
In October the caucus, representing seven First Nation and Metis communities, walked out of a meeting with provincial bureaucrats on the province’s sustainable development plan for the area because they felt they were not being heard, according to Loutitt, who blamed the clash on government inertia.
“The last time they were pretty adamant that this is the rules and they’re going to go ahead and we were there just to listen,” Loutitt told the Journal on Nov. 20. “There was no opportunity for input. We felt that by staying in that meeting, we were just going to help them implement something we had no input into.
“There’s been a change in government and the thing is they don’t change their bureaucrats right away, so we were dealing with old bureaucrats. This last meeting, they brought the assistant deputy minister (and) he was certainly a little bit more open to hearing what we had to say.”
In September CEMA’s board of directors voted to continue operating despite the looming funding cut. Loutitt said any organization that replaces CEMA must have a governance structure that allows for input on what should be researched, and again on final reports before they go to the provincial or federal governments for policy changes.
“We want to provide them solutions on what we feel is necessary not only during the (industrial) development but what it’s going to look like after they’re finished,” he said. “We want input on reclamation. We’ve already seen it where they reclaimed and made buffalo pasture, which really doesn’t help the Aboriginal people. They fence off a big area and put buffalo in and just restrict access to the territory that we used to use.”
Phillips, who Loutitt described as “quite open to the fact that changes need to be made,” told the Journal on Nov. 19 the New Democrats planned to do better on environmental monitoring and consultation with indigenous stakeholders than the previous Progressive Conservative government.
“We have a number of other pieces to put in place on monitoring and cumulative effects that is taking a little bit of time,” she said. “These are not small topics and we also inherited a situation from the previous government … where there was some lackadaisical leadership on their part, so it has taken us some time to do a stock-taking of the institutions, organizations and mechanisms that are on the ground and how we can do better.”
She said indigenous consultation and environmental monitoring were the main subjects she discussed with federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, who was in Edmonton on Nov. 18.
“Our commitment to (Aboriginal groups) is we would ensure that (CEMA’s) best work is carried forward,” she said. “The organization may not be precisely in its current form, simply because we have a number of other challenges from the previous government (but) we are working on how to put together a framework that will work for everyone, mindful of the fact we have to embark on a respectful engagement and participation of indigenous people.
“There are a backlog of concerns in the Lower Athabasca that have been waiting for action (which) require careful and thoughtful attention. Moving too quickly in an area where there are a number of other jobs and impacts and so on is not our approach so we’ve been taking our time with this one.”
Loutitt said the Aboriginal caucus’ administrative staff is working with the province on what the successor to CEMA might look like and that a plan is being developed.
Industry groups have long argued that CEMA should be folded into another organization like the Joint Canada-Alberta Implementation Plan for Oil Sands Monitoring, but CEMA is the only organization that takes input from indigenous stakeholders.
“They are very industry-heavy organizations that work with government,” Loutitt said. “A lot of the time when someone is paying for the report, they definitely make sure it is one-sided, or not all the facts are laid out. Traditional knowledge has to be involved. Our Aboriginal groups, First Nation and Metis, are very tightly aligned on the environment stuff. We do have rights and if you don’t take care of the environment, rights aren’t very much good when it comes to hunting and fishing and access to the land. These are the areas we really find are detrimental to the Aboriginal people.”