Weakening of Bill C-69 would trigger 'flood of litigation,' Alberta chief warns

Four Athabasca-area chiefs are to speak to a Senate committee Wednesday in Fort McMurray, Alta., about Bill C-69.

Some bands in oilsands region say current approach to consultation 'subverts the law'

An oil rig drills near the Suncor Firebag in-situ oil sands operations near Fort McMurray. Bill C-69 would overhaul the regulatory approval process for major energy projects. (Todd Korol/Reuters)

Northern Alberta Indigenous leaders warn that watering down the federal government's proposed environmental assessment law would only doom energy projects to more years of court wrangling.

Four Athabasca-area chiefs are to speak to a Senate committee Wednesday in Fort McMurray, Alta., about Bill C-69.

They say criticism of the bill from Alberta and the energy industry is "riddled with errors." The chiefs, who represent bands in the oilsands region, say the current approach is rigged against them and has clogged the courts with constitutional lawsuits.

"Our intent with Bill C-69 is to ensure that it is robust enough to allow First Nations across Canada to have their rights considered without having to resort to courts," said Chief Archie Waquan of the Mikisew Cree First Nation.

If the bill is weakened, "Alberta should expect a flood of litigation in the coming years," he said.

Bill C-69 has become a flashpoint for both industry and environmental advocates. (Mike Symington/CBC)

The Senate Committee on Energy, the Environment and Natural Resources is holding meetings across the Prairies on the bill.

It proposes to repeal the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and retire the National Energy Board. The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada and the Canadian Energy Regulator would be the authorities responsible for assessing the environmental, health, social and economic impacts of designated projects.

Industry representatives and the Alberta government say such legislation would hurt development through unending consultation and regulatory challenges. The Senate committee was met in Calgary on Tuesday by crowds chanting "kill the bill."

The northern chiefs say watering down the federal draft would only create more legal delays.

"If C-69 is softened, there'll be more court cases coming in for sure," said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Both bands have done millions of dollars of business with energy companies. Neither chief opposes development.

But the bands have a long list of grievances with the way assessment are done now. The bands say current legislation, which dates to the previous Conservative government, has driven them to the courts in nearly a dozen cases. Some have resulted in overturning development approvals.

They also say the province's current approach to consultation "subverts the law."

Regulations define who has the right to speak at public hearings so narrowly that First Nations are shut out, they say.

An Indigenous community must be within one kilometre of a development to be considered affected by it. Traditional use, protected under the Constitution, must be documented by First Nations much more strictly than by any other landowner.

As well, they say, the Alberta Energy Regulator doesn't consider crucial issues such as endangered species, greenhouse gases and treaty rights.

I have more to lose than they do.- Archie Waquan

Waquan said First Nations have little confidence in the office.

"They have a bad record," he said.

The chiefs also criticize Alberta's efforts to keep Ottawa out of examining smaller in-situ oilsands projects. They say companies are splitting projects up to keep them under the federal threshold.

Waquan noted that chiefs in southern Alberta have voiced concerns over the legislation that he and his colleagues support. He said energy impacts on southern reserves are much less than those experienced by his people.

"They're just being used by (the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers). I have more to lose than they do."

The Senate committee is also meeting in Saskatoon and Winnipeg.