The Alberta government has asked about 30 First Nations to resume consultations with resource companies seeking approval on new projects, lifting a pause that was meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In late March, the government implemented the pause as part of its response to the novel coronavirus — suspending rules that set limits on the time each nation can spend before responding to various proposals from industry.
But it is now requiring most of those consultations to proceed, with time extensions of a few days to give a bit more time to some of the affected nations that request it.
Alberta’s Aboriginal Consultation Office started sending First Nations messages in mid-April, letting them know that Premier Jason Kenney’s cabinet had decided to resume consultations, saying that Albertans were counting on them to ensure critical elements of the economy, including resource development, “move forward through innovative and agile means.”
The message was among several emails and letters exchanged with First Nations and reviewed by Global News. It prompted one First Nation to express its “shock and disappointment” that Alberta was putting lives at risk.
Health experts say that Indigenous communities in Canada can be at greater risk than other groups during a pandemic, particularly in low-income and crowded households, without adequate access to water.
Across the country, the populations of many of the First Nations were decimated, nearly 100 years ago, when the Spanish Flu pandemic spread around the world.
For one community, Sucker Creek First Nation, the Alberta government announced that it would end the pause on its consultations on April 21. This wound up being one day before the province confirmed that Sucker Creek had what the province believed was the first case of COVID-19 in an Indigenous community. The government also agreed to give Sucker Creek more time to pursue consultations with industry.
Alberta’s decision requiring First Nations to resume consultations with industry coincides with requests made by the oil and gas lobbyists for the federal government to suspend or delay several rules, laws and policies related to environmental performance, Indigenous rights and lobbying.
The Kenney government said it wants to proceed in a safe way that allows it to keep jobs and the economy going and said that pauses on some consultations were “still an option” upon request.
It has also proposed extensions of five to 15 days to accommodate additional needs of First Nations, according to a notice posted on a provincial website. This could mean that the ongoing phases of consultations would last between 10-30 days depending on the level of engagement required, according to a chart prepared by the government.
Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson told Indigenous leaders and chiefs in a letter on April 23 that he wanted to continue connecting with First Nations, hearing from them and responding to their needs in order to focus on their health and safety.
“We follow the Chief Medical Officer of Health’s public health orders by physically distancing, isolating when necessary, and encouraging others to do the same,” he wrote in the letter.
“At the same time, we need to tend to an economy that is being pummelled on all sides.”
But several First Nations said the cabinet decision could puts their elders at risk, at a time when they are trying to limit contact from outsiders who may be carrying the deadly COVID-19 disease.
Elders in First Nations often play a key role in major decisions and would traditionally be engaging in direct contact with others as part of a consultation.
“The elders prefer to have that gathering and face-to-face contact,” said Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey, who is from Loon River First Nation. “Historically that’s always been our process. Historically, it’s always been the elders of the community all debating the pros and cons and then coming to an understanding where it’s usually a consensus when they move forward.”
The Treaty 8 territory in Western Canada includes northern parts of Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia and some southern parts of the Northwest Territories. In Alberta, many of the nations are located in territory that is now occupied by oilsands projects and other industrial development, where Indigenous communities sign agreements and are partners with industry.
But for many elders, proceeding with consultations through videoconferencing would run counter to their traditions. It would also be difficult in the absence of access to reliable internet service and computers to carry out a process that would normally require meetings to review maps and in-depth discussions about environmental impacts.
For these reasons, Noskey and other Indigenous leaders say that a government proposal to accommodate concerns by offering some nations the allotted extra days to conclude consultations doesn’t make sense.
Noskey said his own nation has been locked down for more than a month and its main priorities have been to ensure essential services and supplies are getting in, while the virus stays out.
In a April 20 letter, a representative of the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation told Alberta Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson that their nation was shocked and disappointed by the government’s actions.
“It is clear that at best, Alberta is failing to adequately consult First Nations, and at worst, is putting corporate economic interests ahead of the health and safety of our community members and all Albertans,” said the letter, signed by the nation’s consultation manager.
The nations also said they had previously told the government’s Aboriginal Consultation Office in early April, that they were still not equipped to proceed with consultations due to physical distancing rules and other challenges.
“Many of the programs we would need are both expensive and require extensive training,” said the letter from the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation. “We also have many Elders whose first language is not English and therefore face literacy challenges. Additionally, a significant component of our process involves field work. We are not prepared to risk our members’ safety by asking them to join a group of people on a site visit.”
Asked at a news conference about why it wanted to proceed with consultations, Alberta Environment Minister Jason Nixon said it was important to keep the economy going.
“I know that Minister Wilson is working tirelessly with his team to be able to make sure that we are able to accommodate First Nations communities,” he said. “Some of our First Nations communities don’t have access to the same level of internet as other places in the province, and so he has to come up with creative ways to deal with that issue but he is dealing with it and again I refer you to him for more information on that.”
Wilson’s office noted in a statement that communities could still apply for a pause as a “last option” and was urging industry to use technology to continue safe consultations when possible.
“This solution helps us all prevent the spread and while keeping the economy active, and can be granted without cost or the need for legislation,” the minister’s office told Global News in an email.
Chief Allan Adam from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation said that the Alberta government was undermining a respectful dialogue with First Nations by moving forward with consultations on resource projects.
“Our focus at this time is on protecting our communities from COVID-19 and the potential devastating impact this disease could have on our people,” Adam told Global News in a statement. “Consultation should not be done when we are unable to engage our Elders, who provide the guidance and wisdom we need to consider the potential effect these projects will have on our environment and people.”
The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, the lobby group which asked the federal government in March to suspend or delay some environmental laws and policies, didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether it agreed with the resumption of consultations with First Nations.
– with files from Heather Yourex-West