The largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world is about to get even bigger, but Alice Rigney is in no mood to celebrate.

Rigney was raised in Northern Alberta on the Athabasca River that now runs directly through multiple oil sands projects.

"That river is our lifeline and has been for thousands of years. It has always sustained us with fish, food, water and travel – everything,” said Rigney.

Rigney grew up watching traditional hunting, fishing and trapping grounds transform into what she now calls the tar sands. She is now part of an Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations (ACFN) Elders council, fighting those developments.

“If they destroy that, what will become of us? Are we going to become refugees on our own land? Where am I going to go?”

Conservation area, compensation lake planned

Now Shell Canada has the green light from the federal government to expand its 7,500 hectare Jackpine Mine to 13,000 hectares.

Oilsand healing walk, June 2013

Two children from Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations at the Oilsands healing walk, 2013. (Ben Powless)

Shell said it could bring the Alberta and federal governments an estimated $17 billion in royalties and taxes over its life and create an additional 750 full time jobs. 

But Indigenous and environmental groups say the predicted damage to water, land and animals outweighs any profits the addition to the oil sands will yield.  

Shell's assessment projects that 185,872 hectares of wetlands in the area will be lost or altered as a result of the Jackpine Mine expansion and other industrial activity.

In order to mitigate impacts, the company has purchased about 730 hectares of former cattle pasture in northwestern Alberta to help compensate for 8,500 hectares of wetland that would be lost just from the expansion. 

Shell has also drafted plans to move caribou and wood bison to a conservation offset zone. They also plan to create a compensation lake complete with fish and fauna in order to further mitigate impacts on wetlands and wildlife. 

Plans 'open the door' for more big mines

Jackpine Mine

Suncor is one of many facilities near First Nations in Alberta. (Ben Powless)

But Shell’s mitigation plans don’t comfort Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Elder Pat Marcel. 

"This will open the door for Suncore, Teck and Total to come in and put another big mine in the same area, Marcel said. They will not only disturb, but they will wipe out the habitat for the wood bison, the Ronald Lake Herd, and also the migratory path of the woodland caribou". 

Marcel is also worried about how the expansion will impact Treaty and Dene rights. The Athabasca deposit is located within the boundaries of Treaty 8 and overlaps multiple traditional Indigenous lands of the Dene, Cree and Metis.

"ACFN has, for the longest time, fought industry and government to really set lands aside for ACFN for the practice of treaty rights", he said. "I have been pushing for 20 years now for consultation to happen. But, so far, no way". 

Shell asserts they have always had significant relationships with the Indigenous people in the territories the company operates within.

Eriel Deranger

Eriel Deranger , ACFN communications representative, says Shell’s consultation process is concerning. (Ben Powless)

"There’s been a lot of work done to look at the expansion, a lot of data collected and analyzed – to analyze the mine expansion itself but also more broadly the oil sands developments. That includes consultation with neighbours, community members, First Nations and other Aboriginal communities, to the degree that there is about 20,000 pages of documentation in the public hearing process," said David Williams, a Shell Canada spokesperson based in Calgary.

"The optics are that they are meaningfully consulting with Aboriginal groups, but actually they send in low level technicians who can’t make decisions or tell us how the decisions are going to be made," said Eriel Deranger, ACFN communications representative. 

"We want to be treated as a government with real authority and rights."

The Fort McKay, Mikisew Cree, and Metis locals have also expressed concerns with the impacts the Jackpine Mine could have on the Muskeg River, and on traditional hunting, fishing and trapping grounds.

According to Shell's environmental assessment 21 kilometeres of the Muskeg River would be destroyed as a result of the mine extension.  For many Indigenous trappers and hunters the river is also the only means of transportation in the summer months. 

"I still live on Athabasca River, Rigney said. “I still go out every chance I get. I don’t drink the water, but I collect medicine, and we eat animals of the land. Who is to say that the animals don’t know that the water is polluted.  They drink it, and does it continue up the food chain?"

ACFN to take legal action

The fight to slow down or stop the massive oil sands development has been years in the making. 

On November 8th, Ottawa put the breaks on the project, granting the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation a 35-day extension.

Pat Marcel, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Elder

Shell’s mitigation plans don’t comfort Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Elder Pat Marcel. (Youtube)

Friday's decision to go forward with the project didn't wait until the 35-day extension period was up.

While the lure of fast money at the oil sands is strong, Alice Rigney said she hopes young people start to think about the future and other choices.

“There is more to life than this, that’s what I tell them. You can be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher — you don’t need to go work in the oil patch. But, in the end, it's your choice," said Rigney.

“My granny used to say everything has life, everything connects and I believe in that. That is my church they are destroying, and it really hurts me to see them ripping Mother Earth’s heart out and extracting what they want. Yes, I am against it.  They say oil is development and progress. But, for me, it’s not. It’s destruction. "

The ACFN has vowed to take legal action against Ottawa’s decision to allow Shell to expand the Jackpine Mine oil sands project.