First Nation says Grand Rapids pipeline approval was 'botched'

A northern Alberta First Nation has filed a court challenge over the Grand Rapids pipeline project, alleging the approval process was "botched."

The northern Alberta band says government officials failed in their duty to consult

Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam says the regulatory process is "fundamentally flawed." (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

A northern Alberta First Nation has filed a court challenge over the Grand Rapids pipeline project, alleging the approval process was "botched."

In documents filed in the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (AFCN) asserts that consultations for the project were procedurally flawed, unaccountable and denied First Nations their constitutional rights. 

The case alleges the Alberta government's Aboriginal Consultation Office made a serious error in July 2014, in deciding that ACFN had no right to be consulted about the pipeline.

Chief Allan Adam says the regulatory process for the pipeline was "botched." 

The band originally filed a challenge in January 2015, but decided to revive the case after growing dissatisfied with the NDP government. 

"The NDP government is still being run by the same old bureaucrats, and nothing has changed in regards in trying to address to some of the issues the ACFN on the health issues, environmental concerns and Treaty rights," Adam said in an interview with CBC News. 

"We feel the system is still broken." 

The Grand Rapids pipeline project is a 50-50 partnership between Calgary-based TransCanada and a unit of PetroChina. (TransCanada)

In a written statement Monday, Richard Feehan, Minister of Indigenous Relations, blamed the previous government.

"I understand Chief Adam's frustration," he said.

"Our government inherited a First Nations consultation process that has too often failed to address concerns early on, or failed to resolve conflicts before they reach the courts."

$3B project approved in 2014

After two weeks of hearings, the Alberta Energy Regulator approved the $3-billion project in October 2014, with 26 conditions.

Proposed by TransCanada and Brion Energy Corporation, a subsidiary of state-owned PetroChina, the 460-kilometre pipeline will carry up to 900,000 barrels of diluted bitumen per day from Fort McMurray to a terminal in Hardisty, southeast of Edmonton.

AFCN has argued the Grand Rapids project is key for more high-profile projects such as Energy East and Keystone XL to go ahead. But TransCanada has disputed that characterization, saying the other lines don't hinge on the Grand Rapids line.

The ACFN says the pipeline will intersect with areas where their members practise their treaty hunting, fishing and trapping rights, and will cross a number of major waterways upstream from their community. 

Furthermore, the band argues the government failed to provide the band an adequate opportunity to present evidence, and prove their right to consultation.

The only time the Aboriginal Consultation Office wrote directly to ACFN was to inform them of their decision that Alberta had no duty to consult them, the First Nation alleges.

Band officials say they have never had a clear explanation as to why they were shut out of the process when other neighbouring bands in the area, such as the Mikisew Cree First Nation, were included. 

"We repeatedly asked the Alberta Consultation Office why we were not to be consulted by TransCanada," said ACFN spokesperson Eriel Deranger in an interview with CBC News. 

"We received no notice other than a single letter from them stating that they did not deem us impacted, shortstop, period, end of conversation.

"There was no explanation." 

The court hearings have been scheduled for Nov. 8 to 10 in Calgary.

"We're really hoping that something can be done," said Deranger.

"Because it's obvious that the system that has been set up in Alberta is failing to meet the needs of First Nations ... and it largely comes down to the duty to consult and who is making those decisions." 

In a project update posted to its website in September of 2016, TransCanada indicated that construction on the pipeline was progressing, and it is set to be operational in 2017.