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An Alberta Environment limnologist wades into the Athabasca River, downstream from many oils-ands projects, to take samples and measure water quality in September, 2011.

JEFF McINTOSH/THE CANADIAN PRESS

An Alberta First Nation has pulled out of talks over improving environmental monitoring in the oil sands, citing a "frustrating and futile process" and the "evolving and unco-ordinated" efforts by the Alberta and Canadian governments.

The governments responded by pledging to push to keep Fort McKay First Nation on board, an effort supported by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), which said the First Nation's participation is a key part of the monitoring program's credibility. In a letter dated Oct. 8, a Fort McKay official said talks have so far failed to agree on terms of reference on how to "effectively engage Fort McKay and other aboriginal groups" on the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring (JOSM) program.

The letter from Alvaro Pinto, director of Fort McKay's Sustainability Department, said the frustrating and futile program meant information sharing was "often inconsistent due to the evolving and unco-ordinated development of JOSM by Alberta and Canada."

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The First Nation said it has received no response to its proposed terms of reference.

"While we don't expect that all of our proposals are met without discussion, we do expect timely discussion and reasonable [dialogue] between parties," Dr. Pinto wrote. "We are open to participating in JOSM, as long as changes in our relationship and the process are made to reflect the major concerns outlined here and in our Terms of Reference."

A community of about 700, Fort McKay sits on the Athabasca River, amid oil sands development and about 60 kilometres downstream of Fort McMurray. It is the only First Nation to have dropped out of JOSM, first announced in early 2012, but not the only one frustrated. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation has raised concerns and is "considering its position within JOSM," spokesperson Eriel Deranger said.

Alberta has been working to respond to Fort McKay's terms of reference proposal and "find some common ground," spokesperson Nikki Booth said.

"It is important that we take the time to do things right and, at times, that means progress may take longer than originally planned or hoped," she said. The province is asking Fort McKay to meet directly with provincial and federal officials.

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq has asked staff to address Fort McKay's concerns, spokesperson Jennifer Kennedy said.

"The minister regrets their decision, and she is 100 per cent committed to working with Fort McKay First Nation and the Government of Alberta," Ms. Kennedy said.

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CAPP, representing industry that has agreed to pay up to $50-million annually for the monitoring program, urged the governments to get Fort McKay back to the table, and work quickly to get the program up and running.

"We would encourage government to move as quickly as possible. I think that's in some respects a bit of a common message between Fort McKay and ourselves, and I think government is trying to move in that direction," said David Pryce, CAPP's vice-president of operations.

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