Sep. 19, 2012 - Issue #883: Best of Edmonton 2012
Fight for rights
Small northern Alberta First Nations band could force government to regulate oil industry
In 1876, ancestors of the Beaver Lake Cree signed the Treaty 6 agreement, trading the land they'd occupied for countless generations in exchange for, among other things, the right to hunt and fish throughout their traditional territory. In return, the Canadian monarch gained the right to use land "for settlement, mining, lumbering or other purposes."
That was long before the oil sands were Alberta and Canada's economic driver. Now, the Beaver Lake Cree Nation—a First Nations band of 900 located just south of Lac La Biche—are saying their treaty rights are being trampled by 19 000 approved or proposed oil and gas applications in their traditional territory, a sizeable chunk of northeast Alberta that includes the bitumen-rich southern leg of the Athabasca oil sands deposit.
In 2008, former BLCN Chief Al Lameman, on behalf of his band, sued the governments of Alberta and Canada, arguing that the government's approval of thousands of oil and gas projects is harming the environment and his community.
"The law is crystal clear: treaty rights are being violated," Jack Woodward of Vancouver-based law firm Woodward & Company says, part of the legal team representing BLCN. "Alberta is built on Indian land, ceded on a solemn promise that there will be the right to hunt, fish and trap. And this is the case where we'll find how far the government can go until treaty rights are meaningless—it's monstrously important."
If Beaver Lake wins, it could mean pumping the brakes on Alberta's massively lucrative oil sands. Woodward says aboriginal treaty rights, and Beaver Lake's court case, are the only thing standing between the government and unregulated development of the oil sands, citing Bill C-38's weakening or removal of several key environmental protections.
"We have a radical government in Ottawa that has gutted our environmental laws," Woodward says. "Now, there's no significant environmental legislation. So what's left? We don't have the legislation, but there are still aboriginal treaty rights—that's it. So you can see why Alberta and Canada have fought this so hard."
On March 28, after four years of legal wrangling, Beaver Lake won the right to have the case heard in court—despite the Government of Canada saying "the entire claim is so broad, general and unmanageable that it is frivolous, improper or otherwise an abuse of the Court's process." Both Canada and Alberta have appealed the March 28 ruling.
Sponsored by international environmental groups—who have also donated more than $400 000 to help cover BLCN's costly legal fees—members of the small First Nations, including Crystal Lameman and her uncle Al, have toured England to talk about their experiences living in oil country.
Crystal, who has two degrees from the University of Alberta and is a member of the Indigenous Environmental Network, recently moved back into her childhood home in BLCN. She says her people have been "drastically affected" by the 15 years or so of oil speculation in their backyards.
"We've become economic hostages—our own people now say we need this industry, because we can no longer go to the land and get the things we need to live," Lameman says. "In the spring, we used to eat ducks on a weekly basis, make a nice soup—but they don't come here anymore like they used to. And the Saskatoon trees, which used to be black and heavy with berries, barely produce anymore."
Lameman and the BLCN aren't advocating shutting down the oil sands. Instead, they want better consultation with the government about the cumulative effects of oil sands development. And if the courts find that those cumulative effects have significantly damaged their ability to exercise their treaty rights, the Beaver Lake Cree are asking for compensation.
Canada and Alberta both deny any wrongdoing, saying oil and gas developments haven't affected the Beaver Lake Cree's ability to hunt, fish or trap for food.
"It is Alberta's position that Beaver Lake Cree Nation's treaty rights have not been infringed," Alberta Justice spokesperson Michelle Davio writes in an email. "[The] process for authorizations is appropriate … Alberta denies that Beaver Lake is entitled to any compensation claimed."
Originally, the Beaver Lake Cree wanted the 19 000 oil and gas applications in their traditional lands revoked. But the Alberta government successfully petitioned to remove the oil applications from the trial, meaning the developments will continue even if the BLCN were to win their case—unless there were a separate lawsuit challenging the applications.
Both sides agree on one thing: the trial will set an important precedent, and it will be a case that could take years before it's settled. For Crystal Lameman, she hopes for a victory—not just for the Beaver Lake Cree, but a symbolic one for all native people.
"I want indigenous people around the world to be able to look at what our little band of treaty Indians did," Lameman says. "We've stood up and talked as equals to the government."
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