Aboriginal leaders say seven years of federal foot-dragging over reform to an agency in charge of oil and gas on reserve lands is at least partly behind a $3-billion lawsuit filed against Ottawa this week.
"Nine times out of 10 we have to wait for government," said Stephen Buffalo of the Indian Resource Council, which is negotiating the reforms with Ottawa.
"When they want something from us, they get it in two minutes. When we want something from them, it could take two months."
Two First Nations filed a lawsuit in Federal Court earlier this week that alleges Indian Oil and Gas Canada has been mismanaging the development of energy resources on reserve lands for years.
The agency is responsible for almost every aspect of energy development on First Nations land – promoting development, negotiating deals, issuing licences, collecting royalties and monitoring activity.
The Onion Lake and Poundmaker Cree bands claim the agency failed to promote and properly exploit their energy resources and also failed to protect them from being drained by wells adjacent to aboriginal land.
Those concerns were directly addressed by legislation passed by the previous federal government, but it has never come into force.
Indian Oil and Gas Canada, which controls energy production on 76 First Nations and collected more than $150-million on their behalf in 2013-14, was the subject of major reform legislation that passed in 2009. The law remains in limbo as bureaucrats and aboriginal leaders wrangle over regulations.
"They say it's their drafters," said Buffalo, whose group is involved in the talks. "It's kind of the process on their end."
Buffalo said the first phase of the regulations are ready to enact and deal with drainage and First Nations' rights to greater transparency on how their energy resources are handled. Those issues are both at the heart of the lawsuit filed earlier this week.
Documents on the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada website suggest the rules may come into effect this spring.
Blaine Favel, a former aboriginal leader and current head of an oil and gas firm advising the law firm on the lawsuit, said legal action would still be needed to address past losses.
A department official was not immediately available to comment on the reforms. Responding to the lawsuit, a spokeswoman said Tuesday that "the government takes such claims very seriously and we are currently reviewing the claim."
Favel said chiefs are frustrated over the slow pace of reform to a regulator that controls virtually every aspect of their energy resources.
"I'm just leaving the AFN national energy conference and the reaction's been lots of handshaking and 'Congratulations' and 'It's about time,"' he said Wednesday from Vancouver.
In 2012, professors from Western University in London, Ont., published a paper about Indian Oil and Gas Canada.
"Relatively comprehensive consultation guidelines are established in the current regulations; however, aboriginal people are still denied substantial control of oil and gas operations on reserve land," wrote Laura Wright and Jerry White.
"The (Indian Oil and Gas Act) (1985) is by far the least evolved of the regimes discussed in terms of guarantees for aboriginal participation and control over oil and gas activities."