Edmonton

Indigenous people 'losing their voice in the oilsands,' says stakeholder group

Hours after the provincial government announced it was giving Indigenous Albertans a bigger advisory role in environmental policy, a group representing Indigenous, local government and business interests in the oilsands complained the government has been doing the opposite.

'There's this empty black hole or black box of unfinished work,' says CEMA president

An electric shovel loads a heavy hauler at an oilsands mine north of Fort McMurray. (Adrian Wyld)

Hours after the provincial government announced it was giving Indigenous Albertans a bigger advisory role in environmental policy, a group representing Indigenous, local government and business interests in the oilsands complained the government has been doing the opposite.

The Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), a group comprised of more than 50 oilsands stakeholders in industry, education and government said in a press release Wednesday that "Aboriginal people are losing their voice in the oilsands."

CEMA conducts environmental research and issues management plans that recommend ways oil companies can better adapt to soften their impacts on the environment and Aboriginal communities.

On Wednesday, Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips formally introduced the Indigenous Wisdom Advisory Panel (IWAP).

The seven-member panel intends to offer a voice to Indigenous communities around the province when it comes to wide range of environmental monitoring, including in the oilsands region.

Phillips said at the announcement the government has moved "many" of the former CEMA research initiatives in-house and no longer relies on the organization.

She also said the province is re-negotiating the Joint Oilsands Monitoring Program with the federal government, and a new agreement will offer a "substantive commitment" to community monitoring.

The ministry also said it would provide more details on why it pulled out of CEMA on Friday.

Unfinished work

CEMA president Dan Stuckless says he doesn't believe the government no longer requires its services. He said the province requested access to CEMA's data just two months ago. 

Stuckless said if the province was still a part of CEMA and provided a reliable source of funding, the organization could provide highly valuable research. 

"There's this empty black hole or black box of unfinished work that doesn't seem to be getting done," Stuckless said. "And it doesn't seem to be a priority to anybody except for the greenhouse gas question."

An aerial image shows a portion of an open pit oilsands mine in Alberta. Chemicals released from mines like this one react with other compounds in the atmosphere to generate harmful pollutants called secondary organic aerosols. (Environment Canada)

CEMA vice-president Ann Dort-MacLean said First Nations and Métis groups are particularly concerned about industry's water usage. 

Communities such as Fort Chipewyan have complained for years about low water levels and poor water quality in the Peace-Athabasca Delta downstream from the oilsands developments.

"People need to have confidence in their water," Dort-McLean said. "And with First Nations, they need to feel comfortable they can continue with their traditional lifestyle; that they can fish and that they can eat the fish."

CEMA laid off seven workers when the government ended its funding but the organization still operates with a volunteer board. 

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitter or contact him via email.

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