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Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam during a news conference, Mar. 20, 2013 in Ottawa.The Canadian Press

After years battling oil sands expansions, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) Chief Allan Adam has signed a deal with Vancouver-based Teck Resources Ltd. to participate in a massive bitumen mine located on the ACFN’s doorstep.

A joint federal-provincial panel is set to begin environmental assessment hearings on the Frontier mine proposal on Tuesday in Fort McMurray, Alta., and several Indigenous communities have lined up with environmental groups to voice their concerns.

The Teck-ACFN deal means that one of the most vocal and aggressive critics of oil sands expansion is now siding with the proponent of a 260,000-barrels-a-day operation that would operate for more than 40 years, drawing water from the Athabasca River and creating huge tailings ponds for mine waste.

The agreement announced last week provides the First Nations community with economic benefits and equity participation in the proposed Frontier mine. It commits Teck to work with the ACFN to mitigate environmental impacts, including air and water pollution, as well as threats to bison and caribou herds.

Chief Adam said his community is also considering an investment in the Trans Mountain expansion project, which would triple the amount of oil-sands bitumen shipped to Vancouver’s harbour for export.

It was only a few years ago that the ACFN sponsored a health study that concluded pollution from the operation of the oil sands was contributing to elevated cancer rates among people in Fort Chipewyan. The Alberta government responded by saying there were many factors at play in the health outcomes in the community. Separately, Chief Adam hosted celebrities such as musician Neil Young and actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who decried the industry’s impact on Indigenous people who live downstream.

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Neil Young (right) sits with Chief Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation as he attends a press conference in Toronto, Jan. 12, 2014.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

In a telephone interview Friday, the chief said he is tired of fighting losing battles in regulatory hearings and the courts in an unsuccessful effort to protect his people.

“We’ve been fighting industry for how long? And we’ve spent well over $1-million in court fees with nothing tangible in return,” he said. “So what am I supposed to do? Am I supposed to continue on fighting as a chief while others sit on the fence and say nothing and do nothing?

“I don’t want to do this. I didn’t want to make this decision but I had no choice. I had to make sure my nation was protected, and that our people are going to benefit from it for the future.”

Teck is a long way from making a decision to proceed with the Frontier project, which would be the northern-most mine along the Athabasca River. The company would likely need to see prolonged strength in global oil prices and completion of at least two of three pipeline projects now in the queue, if not all three. They include the Trans Mountain expansion, which the Liberal government now owns and is committed to finishing; Enbridge Inc.'s Line 3 expansion, which is under construction; and TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL project, which is still facing court challenges.

Completion of those pipelines would go a long way in shrinking the big discounts that heavy-oil producers are being forced to accept on their crude, economist Jackie Forrest of ARC Financial Research Institute said last week.

Despite ACFN’s deal, other Indigenous groups have major concerns about the addition of a large mine in a region that has already seen vast oil sands expansion in the past 20 years.

In a submission filed last week, the Mikisew Cree First Nation (MCFN) argued no approval should be given to Teck until provincial and federal governments conduct a full regional assessment of industrial impacts, including on the Wood Buffalo National Park, a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world-heritage site that is under threat.

“The scale of oil sands development of our traditional lands is negatively impacting our ability to access and use our lands and resources,” Melody Lepine, executive director of the MCFN’s government relations office, said in an affidavit.

Ms. Lepine argued the provincial government in particular has failed to enforce conditions that had been placed on previous developments.

Still, Indigenous leaders, including the MCFN, are investing in oil infrastructure projects to ensure their people benefit from industrial activity that has been built over their objections.

Chief Adam confirmed the ACFN is considering acquiring a stake in the Trans Mountain pipeline as the federal government looks for private-sector investors and Indigenous communities to take on ownership. The chief reiterated the concerns of the Alberta government and industry that the province needs diversity in its oil export market beyond its current reliance on the United States.

“We, as Albertans, are being gouged 37 per cent on the dollar for transporting our oil,” he said in reference to the steep discount on Western Canada heavy crude. “We have one customer, the United States. … We can’t allow that to happen any more.”

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