Alberta First Nation says ATCO needs to pay more for transmission towers on reserve land

Members of a northern Alberta First Nation are accusing ATCO Electric of exploiting their band by not paying a fair price for the transmission towers on the land.

Bigstone Cree First Nation says ATCO refuses to negotiate a fair price

In this photo taken Sept. 27, 2006, high-voltage electric transmission lines are silhouetted against the late day sky near a wind farm in Spearville, Kan. Bigstone Cree First Nation says powerlines like these have been a source of conflict with ATCO Electric. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Members of a northern Alberta First Nation say ATCO Electric is exploiting their band by paying an unfair price for the transmission towers on the land.

A member of Bigstone Cree Nation said the reserve has housed ATCO transmission towers since the 1980s.

Clayton Cunningham, the Nation's executive director, said at that time, the band offered the land to ATCO for "next to nothing" because members thought the community would benefit from the power. 

But since then, the power line has become a major source of revenue for ATCO. According to the Nation, ATCO Electric pays them $5,000 to house 40 transmission towers on the land, plus approximately $40,000 in tax revenue each year.

"This transmission line feeds the oilsands development," Cunningham said. "But Bigstone Cree is not benefiting from it ... The offer that ATCO electric is providing is just fundamentally unfair."

Cunningham cited an August 2017 agreement between TransAlta and Enoch Cree Nation west of Edmonton where the reserve receives $280,000 each year to house transmission towers on 268 acres of land.

ATCO pays Bigstone Cree Nation a fraction of that. Cunningham said they received $5,000 per year between 2004 and 2014 in addition to the tax revenue to have the towers on 58 acres of land.

Bigstone Cree Nation hasn't received any compensation since 2014 because they haven't been able to agree on a rate with ATCO, Cunningham said. If the Nation doesn't get a fair rate, it will withdraw its consent for the transmission line on their reserve, he said.

"The payments should be market-based," he said. "Bigstone doesn't want to get exploited."

ATCO says rates are fair

Doug Tenney, ATCO's northern development vice president, said he's disappointed the Nation went public with their concerns, and will be following up with them.

He said the money ATCO is offering Bigstone Cree Nation is the standard rate approved by the federal government. Tenney also said the rate doesn't reflect the value of the electricity that's transmitted, but the value of the land that the towers occupy.

The Bigstone Cree Nation is located west of Fort McMurray, near South Wabasca Lake. (Bigstone Cree Nation/Supplied)

Tenney also said other land owners and First Nations are paid similar amounts.

But Indigenous consultant Bob Joseph, who helps businesses improve their relationship with Indigenous communities, said companies have to do more than the minimum.

Companies should honour the calls to action of the Truth of Reconciliation Commission, Joseph said, which encourages governments and businesses to work toward economic reconciliation with Indigenous communities.

Economic reconciliation

Joseph said the Indian Act, which governed financial transactions between First Nations and Canadian companies, was designed to discourage bands from generating wealth.

"In that era, Indian Affairs would have decided what value to put on things that were situated on reserve," Joseph said. "A lot of those decisions were based on ideas that, 'we already provide the money for health care, housing and education.' "

Joseph said it can be in a company's best interest to negotiate fairly with Indigenous communities. Otherwise, projects can get tied up in court, wasting time and raking up legal fees, he said.

"Firms would do well to support [economic reconciliation]," Joseph said. "To sit back leaves you exposed."

ATCO supports economic reconciliation and has worked with Bigstone Cree Nation to employ their companies, Tenney said.

But in the case of transmission lines, costs are regulated by the public utilities board, and any increases would be passed on to customers, Tenney said

"We've got that balancing act," he said. "We've got to ensure that whatever we pay an Indigenous community for access ensures that the rates we charge our customers are affordable."

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David Thurton

Senior reporter, Parliamentary Correspondent

David Thurton is a senior reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He covers daily politics in the nation’s capital and specializes in environment and energy policy. Born in Canada but raised in Trinidad and Tobago, he’s moved around more times than he can count. He’s worked for CBC in several provinces and territories, including Alberta and the Northwest Territories. He can be reached at david.thurton@cbc.ca