Alberta violates Aboriginal and Treaty rights in tar sands region: report



Brandi Morin
APTN National News
The Province of Alberta is refusing to release a scathing study revealing how it violates Aboriginal and Treaty rights when it comes to tar sands developments.

The province has had the report since last July.

Some of the violations include: failing to be effective or meaningful for the “inclusion of Aboriginal Peoples in land-use planning, disregard for traditional land uses and culture, failing to include consideration of continued access and peaceful use/occupation of reserve lands; and failing to protect the environment of Treaty holders.

A government appointed panel conducted a review of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan (LARP) that revealed government approved industrial development projects are violating the rights of the people who live there.

The LARP helps direct government policies when it comes to development in the tar sands. This study began in 2014 and was the first of its kind in the province, an initiative under the Alberta Land Stewardship Act.

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The review was prompted after five First Nations and one Metis community applied for a review of the report claiming that they are “directly and adversely affected” by it.

APTN National News obtained a copy of the report that showed, in almost every instance, the review panel agrees with the concerns of Indigenous groups and recommends the government take action.

Some of the First Nations involved stated clearly in their submissions to the panel that they believe:

“The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan is being applied by decision-makers and relied upon by tar sands companies to preclude the protection of Aboriginal and Treaty rights and land uses.’

Eriel Deranger, communication coordinator for Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) located downstream from the tar sands in Northern Alberta, said she believes the government was hiding the report because of what it contains.

“Because the plan is legislated. A lot of the projects, questions and queries were surrounding the oil sands region,” said Deranger. “We have a crashing price of oil, a crashing economy right now. Now First Nations are putting forward a report that says these development projects are a direct violation of our treaty and Aboriginal rights.”

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A Syncrude refinery in northern Alberta. Photo: Brandi Morin

ACFN only received a copy of the report a few weeks ago.

“They wanted to share an early embargoed copy of the report and discuss moving forward…But it should have been in the public’s domain since it was done,” explained Deranger.

Alberta Environment Minister Shannon Phillips said the government wasn’t trying to keep the findings secret, however they are in the midst of “crafting a response to it.”

Phillips said she hand delivered a copy of the report in recent weeks to each of the communities affected.

“We took the time to analyze the report and find ways that we could respond to its recommendations. What we’ve done since is gone to the communities in the review panel process and I’ve visited them myself,” said Phillips. “To give them a copy to discuss some of the ways they’re responding to it so that we can work with communities… rather than simply dumping a response on them.”

But with the NDP’s commitments to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and building new relationships, the government’s actions or reluctance to address the LARP is contradictory, said Deranger.

In many instances in the report the government washes their hands of addressing the recommendations and shuffles the responsibility onto the federal government.

Meanwhile the province has been using the LARP to make decisions on the expansion and development of the tar sands based on LARP, something Deragner says the two governments need to figure out sooner than later.

“The issue around Treaty and Aboriginal rights should be a jurisdictional issue for the federal government. And that the provincial governments are over stepping their boundaries by making decisions to erode, degrade, and abrogate Treaty and Aboriginal title through legislation and policy,” said Deranger.

The report pointed to a recent environmental study undertaken by the ACFN and the nearby Mikisew Cree First Nation which found higher than normal levels of pollutants in wild caught foods in the area stating:

“The research found contaminants in traditional foods such as muskrat and moose. It also found that Aboriginal community members feel less healthy than they did a generation ago. In the study, wildlife was tested for environmental contaminants, including heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Some of the findings found arsenic levels were high enough in muskrat, moose and duck that they were of concern for young children. Mercury levels were also high for duck muscle, kidneys and livers as well as moose and muskrat kidneys. The report remarked that community members are eating less “country foods” because they have been warned off.”

That is concerning for Mikisew Cree hunter and trapper Robert Grandjambe who practices his traditional way of life in and around Fort Chipewyan.

“It’s pretty alarming to start hearing these things,” said Grandjambe who is witnessing changes to the land and coming across sick animals on a regular basis. “But at the same time it’s hard to know where to point the finger, whether it’s caused by industry or climate change or who knows what else?”

He said he would rather eat the food he harvests off the land than the high priced and processed foods found at local grocery stores.

“The energy and content of what I consume off the land, I definitely feel the stamina, strength and power of the traditional foods that I eat,” he said. “When I eat anything from the store, I’m very lethargic, very tired and don’t have the same energy content. I definitely recognize the difference.”

The sounding of the alarm needs to be heeded, he said, before it’s too late.

“It’s a very scary thought to actually think that 10 years down the road or even 5 years down the road that we cannot practice our way of surviving. Why do we have to wait till that point to get it fixed? Let’s figure out these facts now while we have the time,” said Grandjambe.

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Meanwhile 173km south, in Fort McKay, a First Nation community along the Athabasca River and located in the thick of industrial activity, has been at the center of attention over health impacts.

The report urged the government to conduct a health study on contaminants in the Athabasca River happen as soon as possible along with a human-health study.

Fort McKay family physician Dr. John O’Connor has been advocating for a health study for years.

He said he believes the priorities of government are way out of balance.

“It’s profit over health,” he said. “At this point I have no doubt in my mind-no doubt, that’s the reason that these studies have not gone ahead at all because there’s certain fear of what may be found.”

He seeing increased cases of uncommon skin conditions like eczema and other rashes, respiratory problems and peculiar cancers have “popped up” in the community in recent years that he suspects is related to exposure to pollutants in the environment.

He said he feels frustrated that a health study keeps being put off and feels powerless to stop the havoc industry is unleashing to human health.

“As a doctor I feel very betrayed. And I’m very sad and angry at the same time. We are tasked with looking after the health of people and there should be no conditions on that. There appears to be a concerted effort (by governments) to protect industry at the expense of the environment and health of the people downstream.”

Deranger believes the reports damning evidence is an opportunity for the government to put to test their commitments to rebuild relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

“They (NDP) have an opportunity to re-evaluate the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan in direct partnership with us. They can look at this as a bunch of angry Indians or we can look at this as a really great opportunity for the new government to show its muscle as to what it’s actually doing to address the rights issues, conservation and diversification of land use in the province,” explained Deranger.

Environment Minister Phillips said the government is taking it one step at a time.

“The fact of the matter is is that the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan was a multi-year process. There are a number of different frameworks that triggered the threshold of various aspects related to monitoring and our government is committed to taking a thoughtful and careful approach on these manners in partnership with Indigenous Peoples,” said Phillips.

bmorin@aptn.ca

 

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