Alberta First Nations chiefs back federal overhaul of energy project approval laws

Recently Alberta’s First Nations voted to back proposed legislation that would overhaul the way energy projects are approved, despite vocal opposition to the bill.

Bill C-69 receives growing support among Alberta's Indigenous communities

An oil rig drills near the Suncor Firebag in-situ oil sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta, September 17, 2014. (REUTERS/Todd Korol)

Alberta's First Nations are rallying behind the Liberal government as it undertakes changes to the way energy projects are approved.

First Nations chiefs attending a meeting of the Alberta Assembly of Treaty Chiefs in Edmonton voted unanimously to support Bill C-69, said Marlene Poitras, regional chief for Alberta First Nations, Monday.

The controversial legislation would overhaul the way energy projects are given the go-ahead.

The Alberta chiefs' Nov. 15 vote followed an October endorsement of Bill C-69 from four First Nations in the Fort McMurray region.

Poitras said Alberta First Nations support the legislation because it gives Indigenous communities a greater say when it comes to development.

Marlene Poitras is the new Regional Chief for Alberta for the Assembly of First Nations. (Submitted by Marlene Poitras)

"It's having First Nations at the table," Poitras said. "First Nations have to be involved in those discussions."

Bill C-69, now before the Senate, updates federal environmental review legislation.

The federal government says the legislation streamlines a patchwork of regulatory bodies, offers broader impact assessments that consider health and socio-economic factors, and prioritizes early engagement with Indigenous people.

Some in the industry, and Alberta's NDP government, have raised concerns about the legislation. 

First Nations: Oversight needed for in-situ projects

At a news conference Monday to discuss her government's actions to address the steep price discounts that Alberta's oil faces, Premier Rachel Notley reiterated concerns that the bill introduces too much red tape.

Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Chief Archie Waquan. (Amber Bracken/Canadian Press)

"As we move forward we need to make sure we don't make it even more difficult," Notley told reporters. "And that of course is the point our government has been making with respect to Bill C-69."

The Alberta government has also called for the bill to clarify the length of time reviews should take and exempt in-situ oilsands projects from federal assessments. In-situ oilsands projects use high-pressure steam or chemical solvents to release bitumen from underground and pipe it to the surface.

But Alberta's First Nations say they would like to see Bill C-69 go further.

The Mikisew Cree First Nation, located north of Fort McMurray, want legislation that mandates in-situ oilsands projects undergo federal reviews.

In-situ projects tend to have a reputation for being greener when compared to open-pit oilsands mines, "because you don't see a large disturbance of land," Mikisew Cree Chief Archie Waquan told CBC News.

But Waquan said Indigenous communities that surround the oilsands have questions about the impact of in-situ projects that inject steam or chemicals into the ground to extract bitumen.

In an emailed statement, Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said Indigenous people have a voice when it comes to development that affects them and their treaty rights.

"However, we feel that in-situ oil sands projects already face a rigorous environmental review process in Alberta — one that doesn't need to be duplicated by the federal government," Phillips said.

"It's clear that some First Nations and Mé​tis communities have concerns, and we'll continue to engage with them on these concerns."

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

Corrections

  • The number of First Nations in Alberta supporting Bill C-69 was reported incorrectly in an earlier version of this story.
    Nov 26, 2018 12:39 PM MT

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