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Canada Indigenous communities to meet with Alberta over oil sands consultations

A tailings pond stands near the Syncrude Canada Ltd. upgrader plant at the company's mine in the Athabasca Oil Sands near Fort McMurray, Alberta on June 2, 2015.

Ben Nelms/Bloomberg

A month after walking out of their first meeting with Alberta's NDP government, aboriginal communities from the Fort McMurray area will be sitting down with the province's Environment Minister on Tuesday to call for more consultation on oil sands development.

McMurray Métis vice-president Bill Loutitt said he is hopeful that Rachel Notley's New Democrats are still open to hearing the concerns of groups living in the Athabasca region, which is home to most of Alberta's oil sands industry. Seven First Nation and Métis communities pulled out of an Oct. 16 meeting on the province's sustainable development plan for the region when they said they weren't being heard.

"If you're saying, 'Don't like it, leave' – that's telling me they've already made up their mind and there's no real input," Mr. Loutitt said.

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Although he said a senior bureaucrat told the First Nation and Métis communities that they could leave the meeting if they didn't like the government's new consultation plan for the oil sands region, Mr. Loutitt is hopeful that they will be given a fair hearing by Environment Minister Shannon Phillips.

"We are interested in a new relationship and that means sitting down and listening. [This] is an opportunity for me to listen to the input that First Nations and Métis have when it comes to managing cumulative impacts and land-use planning," Ms. Phillips said in a statement to The Globe and Mail.

Rick Blackwood says that land-use rules in the Athabasca region are complicated and can lead to conflict. The assistant deputy minister for Alberta Environment was at last month's meeting and says he's never seen a group walk out in the same way before.

"There have been meetings where things don't go as well as you'd hoped, but I've never personally been at a meeting where they've departed before," Mr. Blackwood said. "When the group left, everyone understood that it was their prerogative and no disrespect was intended."

A key issue for the aboriginal communities is the fate of an agency that monitors and makes recommendations to government on oil sands development policy. The Fort McMurray-based Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) is on the verge of shutting down unless industry or government steps in with funding.

The association's future has been in limbo for years. Industry groups have long argued that CEMA is redundant and should be folded into initiatives such as the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring Program, a federal-provincial partnership launched in 2012, and, more recently, Canada's Oil Sands Innovation Alliance.

However, CEMA has broad aboriginal membership and is seen by many communities as the only independent outlet for their concerns. Despite having no guarantee of funding to make up its $5-million annual budget going forward, the group's members voted in September to keep going.

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Mr. Blackwood applauded the strong involvement that local First Nations and the Métis have had in CEMA. "Their voice in the Lower Athabasca plan and how resources are managed is vital. They live on the land, they have been there for many generations, they have traditional information and knowledge that we could benefit from."

Peter Fortna, a consultant with Métis communities around Fort McMurray, says the government has said it's going to get rid of CEMA and replace it with a new system. The Oct. 16 meeting that aboriginal community members walked out of was part of a pitch on the engagement needed to determine priorities for the regional plan. The current plan, adopted in 2012, needs to be refreshed by 2022.

"With the CEMA model, everybody had a role to play. Everyone was involved with the writing of policies," Mr. Fortna said. "We would eventually get a policy that all the key stakeholders in the area could get behind."

Ms. Notley has maintained that aboriginal community concerns will be taken more seriously by her government, and that the oil sands will be developed in a more responsible manner, he said.

"I'm seeing a disconnect. And I don't know whether it's at the highest levels, in the government, or whether it's still trying to get the messaging down to the people who are implementing the policy."

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