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'Our culture is dependent upon that piece of land,' Chief Mel Grandjamb told The Globe and Mail.

Crystal Mercredi/The Canadian Press

Chief Mel Grandjamb of Fort McKay First Nation has spent the past two days calling around his community, triggering tears of joy – a northern Alberta land protection plan two decades in the making is finally done, limiting oil sands development in a pocket of what he calls “God’s country.”

The Moose Lake Management Plan will protect about 103,000 hectares of land in his community, which is around 60 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The area plays a crucial role in the Fort McKay nation’s treaty rights for hunting, fishing and harvesting, and is the community’s last pristine refuge in a region surrounded by oil sands development.

The First Nation worked with successive Alberta governments to develop the plan. Although details changed over time, the community remained steadfast on the establishment of a 10-km no-development buffer zone around Moose Lake, in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands.

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“It’s beautiful. We call it God’s country. It’s our future, our future livelihood. Our culture is dependent upon that piece of land,” Mr. Grandjamb told The Globe and Mail Tuesday.

Finish line in sight as Fort McKay and Alberta draft plans to protect traditional lands

The no-development buffer comprises just 1.1 per cent of the entire area of the Athabasca oil sands.

And while the plan bars new oil camps, airports and processing plants, Alberta Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon told The Globe it leaves the door open for future extraction on 15 per cent of the total area. Currently, about 13.5 per cent of the land covered by the plan has been disturbed for oil development.

Fort McKay is one of the most resource-friendly reserves in Canada. The First Nation operates a dozen businesses that serve the industry and employ more than 1,400 people, generating $500-million in revenue in 2018.

But in the early 2000s, the community started raising concerns about how those developments were encroaching on its Moose Lake land reserves. That prompted initial discussions about a plan with the government of Alberta in 2002.

In 2008, those discussions were suspended in favour of efforts to develop the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, but in 2012 the Alberta government circled back to Moose Lake and signed a letter of intent to protect the reserves.

Three years later, then-premier Jim Prentice issued another letter of intent. Then, in 2016, the environment minister of the day, Shannon Phillips, signed a renewed collaboration agreement to develop a plan for the buffer zone.

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In January last year, United Conservative Environment Minister Jason Nixon said the finish line was in sight and the plan would be completed in 90 days. The COVID-19 pandemic kiboshed plans to meet that deadline, but on Monday night, the Alberta government closed the loop on close to 20 years of negotiations when it formally submitted the plan to the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

Mr. Nixon told The Globe Tuesday he’s pleased the government and First Nation managed to “find a balanced approach to protect that special landscape, while at the same time creating a way for resource development to still take place outside of Fort McKay.”

“It’s a relief to see it move forward. But why I’m most relieved is I think it will finally provide clarity to a region that has not had a lot of clarity for the last little bit,” he said.

For Mr. Grandjamb’s community, the next step – after celebrating the fact the plan is finally complete – is to “educate Alberta on the content of the Moose Lake Management Plan, so as we develop and grow, Alberta developers will know the parameters required.”

The plan will inform a new regulatory hearing about the future of Prosper Petroleum Ltd.’s proposed Rigel oil sands project, which is partly located within the buffer zone.

The AER gave Rigel the green light in June, 2018, but Fort McKay appealed the decision, arguing the regulator should never have okayed the project with the Moose Lake plan under development.

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Provincial cabinet approval – the final step to get Rigel construction under way – also never materialized. That led Prosper to take the government to court in 2020, arguing that 19 months of waiting for an order in council put it in dire financial straits.

Prosper launched another court action last month, suing the Alberta government over the Moose Lake plan. The company argues numerous government ministers and officials knew about the promised 10-km buffer zone for years, but failed to tell Prosper despite repeated requests for information. That led the Calgary-based company to spend millions of dollars on development and applications.

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