Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series on Canada's oil boom. The first article explored the low-paid temporary worker economy that fuels the service sector in Alberta oil towns.
WOOD BUFFALO, Alberta — Marvin L’Hommecourt gazes over the valley at the headwaters of the Muskeg River. Five years ago, the narrow creek threading along the valley floor reached the top of the bank, 10 feet above. Now, the creek is just a trickle. In recent years, oil companies have been draining it because they need the water for mining operations nearby. Eventually, all the land in sight could be turned into an open-pit mine.
L’Hommecourt, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations Band, is standing in front of a trapping cabin on grounds he has leased for 20 years and his family has been using for far longer. This land is at the center of the Alberta oil sands, the third-largest oil deposit in the world. In this region, Athabasca, the tarry, semisolid form of oil mixed with sand and silt is mined and then refined into crude oil. That crude has reaped trillions in revenue for oil companies, but also radically transformed the landscape and created environmental hazards, including air pollution and ponds of toxic byproduct. Although the recent drop in oil prices has led many companies to put new projects on hold, the slowdown isn’t apparent in the area around L’Hommecourt’s cabin, where mining projects have been underway for more than a decade.
In his day job, L’Hommecourt works as a heavy-machine operator at the Imperial Oil site next door. But it’s his ability to trap that is under threat. His trapline, or hunting route, intersects with the leases of five oil companies. When he first began visiting this spot, only a narrow trail led from a dirt road to his cabin. Today, there’s a giant parking lot for buses transporting workers to the Imperial Oil mine. In the winter, which is prime trapping season, the buses idle to keep the engines from freezing. That sends up clouds of exhaust that L’Hommecourt says have given him headaches and nausea. And thanks to all the development, he says, the lynx and marten he traps have dwindled in number.
His predicament echoes the frustrations of First Nations members across the region. Most of the oil-sands extraction is taking place in the indigenous people’s traditional territories — land in which they have constitutionally guaranteed rights to access for hunting, gathering and performing ceremonies. In recent years, Alberta First Nations have repeatedly sued oil companies, as well as the provincial and federal governments, over new projects and policies that, the aboriginal people argue, violate their traditional rights to these grounds. The suits have created costly delays for oil companies. In response, the Alberta government recently overhauled its system for reviewing oil projects, a move designed to formalize aboriginal participation and streamline the entire process. However, First Nations oppose the new consultation process, arguing that it leaves too much power in the hands of the government.
“[It’s] a lackadaisical, broken consultation structure that doesn’t work in partnership with the First Nations to address any issues,” said Eriel Deranger, spokeswoman for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations. Earlier this year, the band sued the Alberta government for failing to consult it over the proposed Grand Rapids pipeline, which will weave through its traditional territory. “They didn’t come out to the communities,” said Deranger of government officials. “They didn’t engage with the First Nations to determine the impacts of this project, which puts to the question how they are supposed to determine how communities are impacted.”
The Alberta government has acknowledged problems with the new consultation process. A year after it went into effect, then-Alberta premier Jim Prentice said, “We can’t have consultation legislation that none of the people who are being consulted support.” Environmentalists are hopeful that the victory of Alberta’s left-leaning New Democratic Party in May’s provincial election could bring changes, as Rachel Notley, the party leader, has pledged to review the province’s environmental rules and review processes. In a statement, provincial government spokeswoman Michelle Davio wrote, “The Government of Alberta is committed to a new relationship with the Aboriginal People and to consulting in a manner that promotes and supports their relationship.”