Fort McKay First Nation opposes oilsands project in 'cultural heartland'

An Alberta First Nation with a long history of working closely with oilsands companies says it plans to defend its "key cultural heartland" from a Calgary-based energy company that wants to develop a project nearby.

The First Nation describes Moose Lake area as 'last refuge' for its people

Fort McKay First Nation calls the Moose Lake area a “key cultural heartland” and it says it is determined to protect the area from development. (Fort McKay First Nation)

An Alberta First Nation with a long history of working closely with oilsands companies says it plans to defend its "key cultural heartland" from a Calgary-based energy producer that wants to develop a project nearby.

Fort McKay First Nation said it will oppose Prosper Petroleum's Rigel oilsands project unless the province offers assurances it will reduce the project's water use, safeguard wildlife and limit its proximity to the Moose Lake reserve area.

The Moose Lake reserve is a remote area of unspoiled land with two lakes, Gardiner and Namur, located about 60 kilometres from the community of Fort MacKay. Prosper Petroleum intends to develop its project about four km from the reserve.

The Alberta Energy Regulator has scheduled a public hearing for Jan. 9.

The First Nation plans to attend the hearing to "protect its last refuge," it said in a news release.

The Fort McKay First Nation, about 60 km north of Fort McMurray, is encircled by oilsands plants.

'Very disappointing'

According to the AER, the Rigel project intends to use steam-assisted gravity drainage to produce 10,000 barrels of bitumen per day from a site about 65 km northwest of the community of Fort MacKay.

"We can't accept development around Moose Lake the same way it happened around [Fort] MacKay," said Alvaro Pinto, sustainability director for Fort McKay First Nation. "It has to be different."

Fort McKay First Nation has long welcomed oilsands development.

In 2016, Chief Jim Boucher told the Assembly of First Nations in Quebec that his community had seen the benefits of oil and gas development. He urged First Nations to ignore environmentalists, whom he blamed for poverty in Canada's north.

At Cenovus' Foster Creek oilsands operation, 450-metre wells are drilled and steam is injected to soften and separate buried oil from sand. Prosper Petroleum proposes a similar operation north of Fort McKay First Nation (Cenovus)

But the proposed development near the Moose Lake area is different, Pinto told CBC News.

The project would affect one of the last unspoiled places members of the Fort McKay band use to practice their culture, and the area has historical, spiritual and environmental importance, he said.

The nation made a video highlighting the area where elders teach youth how to hunt, trap and survive on the land.

Fort McKay First Nation has been calling for an area protection plan for years. It has asked the province to create a special management zone that strictly regulates development within 10 km of the Moose Lake area.

Pinto said "it is very disappointing" that the NDP government has not delivered on its promise.

In March 2015, former premier Jim Prentice began the process, Pinto said. In February 2016, the NDP government agreed to develop and implement a plan. But almost two years later nothing has been delivered.

"Unless this protection plan is put in place, it's going to be really difficult to accept this project," Pinto said.

Prosper Petroleum ready to proceed

Alberta Environment said Monday it would not be able to provide comment for this story.

The company "is aware the area is of cultural importance to Fort McKay First Nation" and has been engaging with the First Nation and other Indigenous groups since 2012, Carrie Cochran, Prosper Petroleum's vice-president of stakeholder affairs, said in an email.

The company has proposed "numerous mitigation" proposals and looks forward to January's hearing after four years of regulatory review, Cochran said.

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter and email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

About the Author

David Thurton

David Thurton is CBC's mobile journalist in Fort McMurray. He's worked for CBC in the Maritimes & in Canada's Arctic. Email: david.thurton@cbc.ca