Alberta’s resources consultation plan for First Nations is more of the same, bands say

EDMONTON — The Canadian Press

Alberta has released a new draft policy on how it and industry can meet constitutional obligations to consult First Nations when development affects their treaty rights. (STOCK)

Alberta First Nations bands say the province’s latest attempts to reform and manage how industry consults with First Nations on resource developments still don’t take their concerns into account.

“They’ve come to us with prescribed answers and they won’t allow us to question their answers,” said Bob Small, policy analyst with the Treaty 6 First Nations, which covers bands in central Alberta.

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Last week, the province released a new draft policy on how it and industry can meet constitutional obligations to consult First Nations when development affects their treaty rights.

The policy is an attempt to set out clear, consistent rules for consultation and avoid long, expensive court challenges to projects important for Alberta’s economic development.

Several oil-sands projects already face legal wrangles over consultation.

The Supreme Court is expected to announce Thursday whether it will hear the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation’s challenge to the regulatory approval of Shell’s Jackpine mine expansion.

A previous discussion paper from the province on the issue was hastily withdrawn last December under heated criticism from virtually every band that looked at it.

The recent draft policy is an attempt to move past that, said Kevin Zahara, spokesman for Aboriginal Affairs Minister Robin Campbell.

“Our goal is to produce a consultation policy that first and foremost respects First Nations treaty rights and that assures that development on Crown land is for the benefit of all Albertans,” he said in an e-mail.

The draft proposes a single government office that would set standards for when consultation is required and how much is enough. It sets out a matrix outlining what would be necessary for what kind of project.

There are differences from last year’s document.

But mostly, said Mr. Small, it’s same old, same old. He said the government seems to have again ignored a joint submission from Alberta’s three treaty groups.

“It’s their policies, it’s their regulations, it’s their guidelines, it’s their matrix,” Mr. Small said. “That consultation policy, the best it does is ask us, ‘How do you want the violations to continue?’ ”

Mr. Zahara said aboriginal leaders haven’t been shut out. He said Campbell has promised they will be involved in setting up the new consolation office.

He said the latest draft makes it clearer when consultation will be government-led and when it will devolve to industry.

It also allows for benefits agreements between individual bands and companies to remain private, although those deals would be compiled into province-wide data that would be released.

But Mr. Small said the government keeps trying to narrow the debate and won’t consider issues such as revenue-sharing. Cramming complex issues of traditional use and constitutional law into a flow chart just won’t work, he said.

Lawyer Neil Reddekopp, whose firm is negotiating benefits agreements with six aboriginal groups, said it’s a mistake to separate consultation over how development takes place from talks on benefits from those developments.

“The Crown makes no efforts to understand the underlying concerns that the First Nations are proposing,” he said.

“[Alberta] simply responds to specific objections and tries to tinker with some elements of the policy rather than getting at the real issue.”

First Nations need some actual control over development, said Mr. Small.

“There’s a lot of other situations where First Nations need to have, not just control, but authority,” he said.

Greg Brady, manager of aboriginal relations for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said his group is still consulting its members on how it will respond. But the association does support reform, he said.

“There’s some uncertainty in the process. What we are looking for is a fair, timely, transparent process that meets the needs of all the parties.

“The current framework doesn’t necessarily meet all of those needs.”

Mr. Campbell is to meet with negotiators from Treaty 6 next Thursday.

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