Industry and Aboriginal leaders are highlighting the benefits of the oilsands this week in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
The 2-day conference, which winds up today, is called Energy and the oil sands: Aboriginal perspectives.
The event comes on the heels of Neil Young's Honour the Treaties tour that was critical of oilsands development. But this forum is looking at two sides of a very contentious debate.
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It is being organized by the Fort McKay First Nation and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. It is sponsored by Shell Canada, Suncor, Imperial Oil, Enbridge, and other energy giants.
Jim Boucher is the chief of the Fort McKay First Nation — a small community built on trapping, but now fueled by industry.
The oilsands are the new trap line, says chief Jim Boucher
“We are in the oil business, so we are talking about the economy, the environment and aboriginal relations”.
'There is no more opportunity for our people to be employed or have some benefits except the oilsands.' - Jim Boucher, chief of Fort McKay First Nation
“We have to be realistic...what is going on in the oilsands developments here. They are massive, and doing a lot in terms of destruction of the land, we are losing our land,” said Boucher.
“But on the other hand there is no more opportunity for our people to be employed or have some benefits except the oilsands. The trapping economy died off for us in the 1980's.”
The 700-member community owns the Fort McKay Group of Companies.
The company provides services to oilsands developers. It employs 4,000 people and brings in 100-million in annual revenue. Boucher says he is proud of what his First Nation has achieved.
“Fort McKay itself has virtually no unemployment, everybody is working and making a good wage. More and more aboriginal people are coming from all over Canada to work at the oilsands.”
Looking for a healthy debate
Kyle Harrietha lives right in the heart of the oilsands. He is the general manager of the Fort McMurray Metis - a group who has a number of small contracts in the oilsands.
He says he's there today to see some healthy debate about the oilsands with big industry players.
'...we are going to have to come to grips with diversifying the economy up here, because we don’t want this place to turn into a ghost town when the oil sands are gone.' - Kyle Harrietha, general manager of the Fort McMurray Metis
“There is nothing pretty about a bitumen mine. It’s certainly a jaw dropping experience for anyone who comes to the oilsands for the first time and sees the scale of the operations”.
But he says it's all about balance - looking for ways to efficiently manage an environmentally damaging industry, and make sure everyone sees a boon from it all.
“Its going to be important for particularly aboriginal communities up here to see some financial benefits out of this development. But we are going to have to at some point come to grips with diversifying the economy up here, because we don’t want this place to turn into a ghost town when the oil sands are gone. “
He hopes governments will work harder to recognize treaty and aboriginal rights of the First Nations and Metis in the region.
As for Boucher he says it's not all black and white.
“Lets all have a conversation about what’s good and bad about the oilsands. Lets see what (we) can find in terms of a meeting point in terms of oilsands developments. We have a wide variety of complicated issues that need to be addressed, we need to talk about what standards we hope to incorporate with respect to the operations.”
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, who's been publicly fighting the oilsands, gave a presentation on the environmental impacts today.
Dayle Hyde, communications director of Fort Mckay says speakers were offered an honorarium. Some refused, some took only enough to cover travel expenses, and another (who was unable to attend) had requested his honorarium be donated to a charity.