Two northern Alberta First Nations have closed the deal on the purchase of a 49 per cent interest in a Suncor Energy oilsands storage facility for $503 million.
The acquisition by the Mikisew Cree and Fort McKay First Nations was first announced a year ago but was conditional on the First Nations securing funding.
The project, known as the East Tank Farm Development, is located about 30 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Alta. According to a Suncor news release, the facility is a bitumen storage, blending and cooling operation handling production from the Fort Hills oilsands mining project.
Fort McKay now owns 34 per cent of the development while the Mikisew Cree First Nation owns 15 per cent. The groups will receive revenue from the investment for the next 25 years.
Oilsands investment criticized
Indigenous investment in the oilsands has been criticized by some First Nations and environmental groups. In 2014, former Mikisew Cree Chief Steve Courtoreille claimed contaminants flowing downstream from the oilsands were making his people sick.
But current Chief Archie Waquan told the CBC revenue from the Suncor project will help fund much-needed programs.
"This is a balance," Waquan said. "I used to challenge industry in my previous years. Now I look back at it and say, 'What I have done in the past maybe I shouldn't have done it.' There's a balance between the environment and industry. They have checks and balances for both sides and we'd like to be a part of it."
Waquan encourages other Indigenous groups to follow suit.
"Other First Nations, I know … they're against development. Maybe they're not part of it. Maybe they're left on the sideline. Maybe if they give them a chance to be a partner in it they'll think otherwise," he said.
"They don't understand what they're putting aside is detrimental to their First Nation because any First Nation right now needs funding or dollars to operate and we get very little funding from [Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada] or any other government."
Fort McKay Chief Jim Boucher agrees. His First Nation, situated near the epicentre of the Athabasca oilsands deposits, has a zero unemployment rate, with members enjoying an average annual income of $120,000, and financial holdings in excess of $2 billion, thanks to its willingness to do business.
"Our First Nation is dependent on the oilsands economy to make a living. It provides resources for our community to develop programs, construct our homes, build up our infrastructure. I think the investment we made today is very historic."