Indigenous leaders divided over proposed oilsands mine in northern Alberta
FORT CHIPEWYAN, ALTA. -- As the deadlock between a group of Indigenous chiefs and a northern B.C. pipeline brings rail traffic to a standstill, the future of another energy project in northern Alberta is hanging in the balance.
The proposed Teck Frontier oil sands mine project, estimated at $20 billion, would be about twice the size of Vancouver. It is expected to create 7,000 construction jobs and 2,500 permanent positions.
A federal-provincial joint review panel found last July that the project would be in the public interest, even though it would likely harm wetlands, old growth forests and wildlife.
The project, if approved, would be capable of producing more than a quarter-million barrels of oil each day and roughly four million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions every year for over 40 years.
Ottawa is expected to decide next week whether to approve or reject the project.
Fourteen Indigenous groups in the area have signed benefits agreements with the company. But some Indigenous elders say the project would be catastrophic for the environment and would cause irreversible damage to the land.
Kevin Weidlich is among the project’s supporters. He says the mine would spur an economic boost to his community.
“We want to be champions of an evolution of our Indigenous people to be able to have a balance between development as well as the traditional aspects of life,” said Weidlich, who is CEO of the Wood Buffalo Economic Development Corporation.
Bill Loutitt, CEO for the McMurray Metis, echoed those feelings.
“We want to ensure that our elders and youth are taken care of, just like everybody else, and the only way to do that is by being involved,” said Loutitt.
But Alice Rigney, a Dene elder in Fort Chipewyan – the community closest to the proposed mine site -- says none of that matters if the environment is destroyed.
“Teck Frontier is going to destroy this land completely. And when I say the land, everything that goes with it, including the people, the birds, the animals, the fish, the water,” she said.
Fred “Jumbo” Fraser, an 82-year-old Metis elder, has lived in the community for his entire life. He says he’s already seen a dramatic difference in the land, even without the mine.
“We don’t have any water in our delta anymore. Everything has dried up, so we’re not trapping … We don’t have hardly any wildlife, there’s no rabbits,” he said.
Even so, Fraser says rejecting the mine won’t bring back that lost wildlife.
Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation says he understands the environmental concerns, but he still supports Teck Frontier.
“Better to be on the inside than the outside because when you’re on the outside, you’re always barking up a tree that you’ll never get anywhere,” Adam said.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney supports the mine and has urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to approve it, warning that a rejection could bring Western alienation to a "boiling point."
Earlier this month, Kenney sent a letter to Trudeau hailing the project as the "model of environmental and social responsibility."
"[Teck Frontier's] rejection would have devastating impacts on Alberta and Canada's economy and federal-provincial relations," Kenney wrote in his letter to Trudeau.
"It would be interpreted as a rejection of our most important industry and could raise roiling Western alienation to a boiling point – something I know your government has been attentive to since the election.”
The Liberal government has vowed to reach net-zero emissions for Canada by 2050. In late January, Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson said the decision over whether to approve the project will include considerations as to what Alberta is doing to help reach that goal.