Nobody could ever accuse Chief Jim Boucher of being anti-oilsands.
First elected to lead Fort McKay First Nation in northeast Alberta more than three decades ago, Boucher has made a name for his cooperative relationship with industry, which includes launching a sizable oilsands service conglomerate, denouncing environmentalists and purchasing a 34 per cent stake in a $1 billion Suncor bitumen storage terminal.
But now, a proposed 10,000 barrel per day oilsands project is threatening to infringe on a nearby sacred region called Moose Lake that serves as the First Nation’s “key cultural heartland” and is shared with the local Métis community for traditional activities. And Boucher is speaking out against the project — specifically targeting the provincial NDP for failing to finalize a management plan that would restrict development in the area prior to the regulatory hearings.
“This government does not want to do an agreement with Fort McKay,” said Boucher in an interview with DeSmog Canada, during a break in the Alberta Energy Regulator hearings. “We’ve had discussions with them. As a result of these discussions, we have gone nowhere in terms of trying to resolve our issues with respect to the integrity of Moose Lake.”
A spokesperson for Alberta’s environment and parks department didn’t provide a response before deadline.
‘It’s the last refuge for Fort McKay’
The Moose Lake reserves are actually made up of two lakes — Gardiner and Namur — located about 64 km northwest of Fort McKay. Moose Lake is very important for the First Nation because it’s where the community originated and gravesites are located there.
“This is the one area where it’s pristine,” Boucher said. “People trust the environment, they trust eating the fish, they trust eating the wildlife. It’s the last refuge for Fort McKay. It’s why it’s really important for us to try to maintain some of the integrity that the land will have for our people to continue practicing our traditional activities in the future.”
Land use management plan promised in 2016
In late 2013, Prosper Petroleum — a small company led by veterans of BlackRock Ventures and Koch Exploration Canada — started drilling evaluation wells near Moose Lake, on leases obtained from Koch Oil Sands Operating. Shortly after, Fort McKay First Nation and Fort McKay Métis Community Association appealed the decision to grant the well licences, contending that further exploration activities should be halted until a land-use management plan was in place.
The Alberta Energy Regulator gave the company the go-ahead to continue exploratory drilling in November 2014. But only a few months later, then-premier Jim Prentice signed a letter of intent with Boucher to establish the Moose Lake Access Management Plan under the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) in 2016.
“When Chief Boucher asked for our support to protect the small parcel of land near Moose Lake for his community, I didn’t hesitate to say yes,” Prentice said in a government press release.
The Alberta NDP was elected only two months later. The plan still hasn’t been released. In April 2016, then-minister of Indigenous relations Richard Feehan said “we’re still fully behind it and we’re moving ahead quite well on it.”
There are 42 recommendations in the still-unreleased access management plan.
Boucher said the government agrees with all but two, which both relate to the strict regulation of industrial development within a 10 kilometre buffer zone around Moose Lake. That would mean things like carefully coordinating roads and other linear disturbances to help protect caribou and other wildlife. A central processing facility, used for steam generation and production, wouldn’t be allowed within the radius.
Fort McKay First Nation also delayed Brion Energy’s Dover project by requiring a 20 kilometre buffer around Moose Lake. It eventually authorized the project in 2014 after certain restrictions on wellpads and industrial plants were agreed upon (the details are confidential).
But Prosper Petroleum intends to develop within four kilometres of the reserve. As reported by CBC News, the company’s vice-president of stakeholder affairs said during the regulatory hearings that requiring the company to move operations farther from the area would “result in unprecedented and undue hardship to Prosper in terms of additional costs.”
First Nation forced to take legal action
In an e-mail, Fort McKay First Nation executive director Jauvonne Kitto said that “Alberta has expressed concerns about managing the risk of proponents asserting financial losses arising from development management measures being proposed.”
Boucher said that as a result of the absence of a plan, the energy regulator won’t deal with Aboriginal treaty rights issues or Indigenous land-use management at all when deliberating on whether to approve the project.
“Their mandate is to consider the application and then come to a decision based on what they perceive to be in the best interest of Alberta,” he said.
This leaves only one option to Fort McKay: battling it out in the courts.
The First Nation first launched a lawsuit against the government over this issue in April 2016. Kitto said the litigation is ongoing and scheduled to return to court upon the conclusion of the regulatory hearing process.
Land use plans ‘only way reconciliation can be expressed on land’
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In an interview with DeSmog Canada, Valérie Courtois — director of Indigenous Leadership Initiative, an organization that advocates for Indigenous-led land management and the Indigenous Guardian Program — said there are some leading planning examples in the Northwest Territories, such as the Dehcho First Nations and Deline Got’ine Government.
Courtois noted the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision on the Peel watershed is a reminder to Crown governments that there’s a need for “honour” and “collaborative approaches” if the goal is good management, whether for development or conservation.
“I really see that these land-use plans and tools are the only way that reconciliation can be expressed on the land,” she said.
If the Fort McKay situation is any indicator, it may be some time before that is seen in northern Alberta.
The Alberta Energy Regulator will release its decision within three months. Prosper Petroleum plans to start production in 2020.
“The likelihood that the AER will deny Prosper permission to carry on with the Rigel Project based on objections from Indigenous communities seems, unfortunately, very low,” concluded a recent analysis by University of Calgary faculty of law research assistant Amy Matychuk.
But Fort McKay isn’t going down without a fight.
“We continue to hope that in any eventuality that Moose Lake will be protected, that we have a refuge,” Boucher said.
“We’ve lost 70 per cent of our land to the oilsands developers so far. We’d like to maintain a little piece of land so our people can continue to hunt, trap and fish and exercise our treaty rights on the lands we have available to us.”