This weekend, me and some other Wanderers, Finbarr Timbers and Navneet Khinda, were lucky enough to visit Fort McMurray as part of the University of Alberta Oilsands Delegation. The trip featured a tour of Suncor’s Steepbank mine as well as a visit to the first partially reclaimed tailings pond. In addition to that, we listened to a variety of stakeholders discuss issues surrounding development. We heard from Aboriginal leaders, politicians, Suncor employees, the Pembina Institute and environmental activists. The trip was absolutely awesome, and if it sounds like I’m acting as a cheerleader for the club, it’s because I am. With so much rhetoric surrounding the debate, having the opportunity to visit the area and speak with people directly involved was enlightening and rewarding. I highly suggest you all apply, it’s well worth it! Promotion aside, I wanted to write some general comments on Aboriginal viewpoints of the oilsands while the different views are still fresh in my mind.
Hearing the Aboriginal leaders was likely the highlight of the trip, as it was a viewpoint I hadn’t heard before. The leaders present represented diverse aspects of the community, from one involved in governance, another involved with applying traditional knowledge to the study of environmental impact and finally an elder who was active with the Keepers of the Athabasca. The views were diverse, and certainly differed from what is traditionally portrayed in the media. I was expecting criticism of the industry, and that was present. However it was presented in a more nuanced manner than I have heard before.
Matthew Whitehead, a Masters Student and Traditional Knowledge Coordinator for the Mikisew Cree First Nation, presented an analogy that served to clarify the impact of industry that some Aboriginals felt: he compared it to someone lighting a cigarette in your house; you know something is off, but it is hard to prove and hard to trace. He also expressed a sense of disappointment at the seeming paternalism of some non- Aboriginal advocacy groups, and suggested that Aboriginal activists were capable of arguing their own case. I am inclined to agree with him on this point, and am somewhat skeptical of what could be seen as advocacy groups merely mapping their goals onto Aboriginal nations. Conducting advocacy in such a manner seemingly denies some Aboriginal groups agency in determining their relationship with industry.
A viewpoint that I hadn’t heard before was discussed by Ray Powder, a leader from the Fort McKay First Nations. He spoke about how the band had decided that fighting the oil companies was a losing battle, which seems to be an unfortunate reality, and instead pursued business relationships with the industry. This realization led to the creation of the Fort McKay Group of Companies, which provided the community with an excellent source of revenue. This income was in turn reinvested into the community, funding a new Elders’ Centre, youth centre, better housing and the opportunity to build a private school to ensure that the Aboriginal youth in the community could receive the education necessary to succeed in today’s economy. One of the more fascinating initiatives in the community was the establishment of an ‘incubator park’, or a place where upstart business could receive the necessary services to encourage their success. Despite the ills that development has caused in the community, I think that there stands to be lessons learned from the actions of this band, and ones that should be more broadly applied across Aboriginal communities in the province. The challenge of development facing the Aboriginal community is large, but the community demonstrates a level of wisdom and ingenuity not often seen.
Finally, an interesting perspective was given by members of the industry, who were openly critical of the current state of the consultation process. While accepting that Suncor has come a long way in terms of the complexity and completeness of consultation, there is further to go. Comparatively, and anecdotally, there have been instances where foreign companies have flown in their leadership, with personally selected gifts, to meet with Aboriginal leaders. That said, Suncor is working to actively engage Aboriginal people in the reclamation process, seeking their input on issues of vegetation and procedures in the reclamation of Pond One, now known as Wapisiw Outlook.
I was left with the impression that despite the significant challenges facing the coexistence of industry and Aboriginal peoples, there is much to be hopeful for. The path to today has been rocky, and full of inflated rhetoric. However, there seems to be a growing feeling that accepting the presence of the oilsands and actively working with industry to mitigate environmental damage and maximize economic benefits can lead to, as Ray Powder said, the two groups being “good neighbours”.
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