Fort McKay First Nation chief calls for treaty rights to be upheld as legal battle over oilsands project continues

Click to play video 'Fort McKay First Nation asks appeal court to turn down oilsands project' Fort McKay First Nation asks appeal court to turn down oilsands project
WATCH ABOVE: An Alberta First Nation says it's battling for its Treaty rights, asking the court of appeal to turn down an oilsands project but it's hopeful the provincial government will step in. Kendra Slugoski explains – Oct 29, 2019

The chief of the Fort McKay First Nation in northern Alberta spoke outside the Court of Appeal in Edmonton on Tuesday to explain that his people don’t oppose oil extraction in its vicinity but want their treaty rights respected so they can protect the integrity of their traditional lands.

Chief Mel Grandjamb spoke to reporters on the same day his community’s lawyers were in court to argue that the Alberta Energy Regulator’s June 2018 approval of Prosper Petroleum Ltd.’s Rigel project should be overturned.

“As you know, Fort McKay is a strong partner in the Alberta oilsands,” he said. “We employ 1,400 people and contribute half a billion dollars into Alberta’s economy. We have helped Alberta grow for decades and will continue to do so.

“We are proud to be a part of Alberta’s energy sector.”

Grandjamb said his community’s lawyers oppose the Rigel project because it “plans to put a central processing facility within the 10-kilometre zone on a Moose Lake area that we plan to protect.”

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“Moose Lake is our last wilderness in our traditional territory,” he said while surrounded by other members of the First Nation. “Moose Lake is where our ancestors lived and practised their way of life for thousands of years. It’s important to us because Fort McKay is surrounded by oilsand leases on three sides. If anyone knows the geography up there, we are definitely located right in the centre of the oilsands there.

“Moose Lake is the last place where we can practise our ancestors’ traditions and pass them on to our young people. We need to protect the integrity of Moose Lake. We need to keep our culture alive for our children and our children’s children.”

The Fort McKay community is made up of about 800 residents and is located about 80 kilometres from Fort McMurray.

When the AER approved Prosper Petroleum’s $440-million, 10,000-barrel-a-day plans, the decision came despite a provincial draft plan meant to help protect the area from overdevelopment — a plan that included the 10-kilometre zone Grandjamb spoke about.

READ MORE: Fort McKay First Nation sues Alberta government, says oilsands project threatens sacred site

The AER has previously said it was unable to consider the approval’s effect on the province’s plan for the area because it had yet to be implemented.

“Even as the court process happens, Fort McKay is hopeful there’s another way,” Grandjamb said. “And that way forward is to have the Alberta government approve our Moose Lake plan.

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“We have worked closely with government and industry for almost two decades to get a commitment… for an access management plan for this area.”

Prosper Petroleum has previously said it is committed to addressing its neighbours’ concerns.

READ MORE: Alberta oilsands project wins regulator approval despite Indigenous objections

“I think most Albertans will be pleased to learn just how hard Fort McKay has worked to listen to industry’s concerns, even as we protect our treaty rights,” Grandjamb said. “When we began working with Alberta, we promised that this plan would not sterilize bitumen recovery and we’ve kept to our promise.

“We believe Alberta’s new leaders will agree with the new Moose Lake plan. It’s fair and it’s reasonable.”

–With files from The Canadian Press’ Bob Weber