The details of a now resolved dispute between the Piikani Nation and Alberta government are coming to light, two weeks after water stopped flowing into the Lethbridge Northern Irrigation District (LNID).
The blockage sent farmers across southern Alberta into a panic as they tried to grapple with the ramifications of what that could mean for their livestock and crops. But possibly the most frustrating part for these farmers was the fact that they had no idea what the issue was, or why it was happening.
“Is it an issue on the reserve or is it a government issue? We don’t know. So when is it going to be resolved? That’s the scary thing; we don’t know… So where do we go and what do we do?” Troy Bischler, a cattle producer, said to Global News on Tuesday.
When the issue came to a resolution late Tuesday evening after members of the Piikani Nation and the provincial government conducted in-person meetings, farmers were still in the dark as to what the problem really was.
Now, a Piikani council member is sharing some insight on the matter.
“Farmers and other people that need access to water, we do understand that aspect and we are very conscious, and at times we get very protective of our river — it’s sacred to us,” Coun. Riel Houle said.
The province is planning to build a new weir for the district, and Houle said the nation has been asking to be a part of the project since 2017.
The current weir diverts water downstream from the Old Man River on the Piikani Nation.
However, when government workers arrived to perform some work on the infrastructure, Piikani council ordered the diversion gate to be shut.
“We were actually at the Blackfoot Confederacy Conference in Calgary when we got word that there was workers down there and they were doing some rehabilitation to the weir,” Houle said.
“We had been trying to communicate to the province that if you guys do want to come on and build that weir, you’ve got to come and talk to us… We need to be a part of this, and this is serious.”
Houle said there needs to be more conversation and understanding between the two parties so that, in the future, things like this won’t happen.
“Alberta is reluctant to opening this settlement agreement again, but to me, at the end of the day the LNID isn’t going anywhere, it’s going to remain smack-dab in the middle of the Piikani Nation,” he said.
“We don’t want to be millionaires or anything, our people just want to be happy, but we also want to ensure that this river is taken care of and the Piikani Nation is given its fair share of the volume of water when it comes out of there.”
The government also spoke on the dispute, noting that the two parties had come to an understanding to get the water flowing once again, as well as laying the foundation for a better relationship moving forward.
“It’s certainly been Minister Wilson, the minister of Indigenous relations, and my intention to make sure that they have felt heard,” Jason Nixon, minister of environment and parks, said.
“I do think that the results of this agreement show that they feel they’ve been heard, and we’re going to continue to work very very hard with the Piikani Nation on a partnership that is long term.”
The exact terms of the agreement have not been disclosed but Houle and Nixon both said it accelerates the process of including the nation in future discussions surrounding the new weir.