N.W.T.-Alberta water agreement under criticism after unilateral suspension of monitoring

N.W.T. leaders are criticizing a water protection agreement with Alberta after leaked emails show the province suspended some environmental regulations without consulting the territorial government. 

The agreement does 'nothing' to protect the N.W.T., Indigenous leader argues

A haul truck carrying a full load drives away from a mining shovel at the Shell Albian Sands oilsands mine near Fort McMurray, Alta., Wednesday, July 9, 2008. Leaked emails show Alberta did not consult with the N.W.T. before deciding to reverse some of their environmental regulations for the oil and gas industry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Two Indigenous leaders in the N.W.T., and a former territorial environment minister, are criticizing a water protection agreement with Alberta.

The N.W.T.-Alberta bilateral water agreement, signed by both governments in 2015, sets out a "common and agreed-to set of conditions regarding water quality, water quantity, fish and other aquatic life," in the Mackenzie River Basin. The system includes rivers and lakes found in three provinces and two territories.

Earlier this week, leaked emails showed that Alberta suspended some environmental regulations included in that agreement without consulting the N.W.T. government. 

    Erin Kelly, the N.W.T.'s deputy environment minister, wrote in one email to the Alberta government that the territory "has not been informed of or discussed new changes to monitoring as per [the agreement]." 

    The Alberta Energy Regulator suspended some of the regulations on June 9 in what it said was a low-risk way of helping the energy industry respect Alberta's public health order. By July 15, the regulator announced on their website that all environmental monitoring is back in place. 

    The Alberta Energy Regulator declined to comment, asking CBC to reach out to the Alberta government instead. Both the N.W.T. and Alberta governments have been asked for comment but did not immediately reply.

    'Rife with contradiction' 

    The first clause of the N.W.T-Alberta agreement commits both governments to "early and effective consultation" on any decisions that could harm water quality across borders. 

    [The regulator said] it's okay and safe to do all the oil and gas development, but it's not okay to monitor it.- Michael Miltenberger, former N.W.T. environment minister 

    In 2015, Michael Miltenberger signed on to the agreement in his role as the N.W.T.'s environment minister. He said the Alberta Energy Regulator's decision was "rife with contradiction." 

    "[The regulator] said it's okay and safe to do all the oil and gas development, but it's not okay to monitor it," Miltenberger told CBC. "That's not a rationale that resonates with many rational people."

    The N.W.T.-Alberta agreement also allows both governments to use or manage water within their borders in any way they please, so long as it doesn't harm the environment. 

    Miltenberger said it's important to "use other levers" in the agreement to make sure that clause is not "abused" by political leaders looking to avoid environmental regulations.

    Michael Miltenberger, the N.W.T's former environment minister, says the agreement lets Alberta decide how to monitor waters in their own borders, which could easily be 'abused' by politicians looking to skirt regulations. (CBC)

    Governments can ask a committee to decide how to resolve any issues, which could include a "revision" to the agreement's overall goals. 

    Miltenberger said the disagreement could be brought before the courts if there are "irreconcilable differences" between the two governments, but said that should be the "absolute last resort." 

    Indigenous governments not signatories to water agreement 

    Norman Yakeleya, chief of the N.W.T. Dene Nation, told reporters in a press conference that he believes Alberta's regulator violated the agreement and stressed the need for repercussions — but didn't specify what that could look like. 

    Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya is calling on the federal government to make freshwater an essential resource. (Randall Mackenzie/CBC)

    "[The Alberta government] has chosen oil and gas over the essentials, such as water, land and people," Yakeleya said. "That's where their mind and heart is." 

    [The Alberta government] has chosen oil and gas over the essentials.- Norman Yakeleya, chief of N.W.T. Dene Nation

    Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith's Landing First Nation, said the agreement needs to be signed by Indigenous governments because it deals with waterways that run downstream through their traditional territory. 

    "It does nothing to protect the N.W.T., or us," Cheezie said. "It has no tools to affect any change … we have no power to protect our rights." 

    Federal government's role overlooked in water dispute 

    In June, Cheezie and several N.W.T. leaders wrote a letter to Jonathan Wilkinson, the federal environment minister, asking him to reverse the Alberta Energy Regulator's decision. Cheezie said they received no reply. 

    "The wheels of government in our country turn real slow, and they've basically grinded to a halt now," Cheezie said. "I'm very discouraged and frustrated with how this is being handled on multiple levels." 

      Miltenberger said the federal government's role in managing water systems is often overlooked. Canada signed the first bilateral water agreement with five provinces and territories in 1997, he said, which set the stage for the modern N.W.T.-Alberta relationship. 

      I'm very discouraged ... with how this is being handled on multiple levels.- Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith's Landing First Nation

      "I don't think people are aware of the full range of the governments that are involved here," Miltenberger said. 

      "There is a big chink in the armour protecting water systems if the federal government is not there doing its part." 

      Yakeleya and Cheezie want the federal government to recognize water as an essential resource. Yakeleya also suggested a new law that would force the federal government to play a bigger role in water monitoring. 

      The Liberal Party's 2019 election platform set aside $45 million in 2020 for a new Canada Water Agency to "find the best ways to keep our water safe, clean, and well-managed." The government is currently running online consultations for how this new agency should work.

      CBC has reached out to the federal Department of Environment and Climate Change to ask about this new agency and to clarify their role in water preservation. 

      With files from Avery Zingel