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The Fort McKay First Nation in northern Alberta is surrounded by oil sands projects. Like other Indigenous communities in the area, it endures noise and emissions, and has concerns about water, air quality and boreal forest destruction.

But the First Nation has also, over the decades, adapted to living amidst the mines and in situ projects north of Fort McMurray. It is wealthier than most, in part through community-owned companies that do service work – jobs like transport, waste disposal and catering – for the oil companies. It brags that only 5 per cent of its annual operating budget comes from government.

Through all of this, the First Nation has never been an oil producer itself. But that could change with a new agreement that puts the community in the driver’s seat. It’s an example of how Indigenous participation in resource projects so that they are even remotely tenable is now essential.

Earlier this month, the First Nation announced a memorandum of understanding with Suncor Energy to explore the possibility of a new oil-sands mine on reserve lands. Under the terms, Suncor will do tests to determine the quality and quantity of mineable ore on Lease 174C, Fort McKay reserve lands located conveniently just southeast of the company’s Fort Hills site.

Suncor, the massive Canadian company that is getting close to producing 1 per cent of the world’s daily oil, is looking for ways to keep its bitumen flowing post-2040. It has become increasingly difficult to build new projects, or expand old ones. It was four years ago that Teck Resources abruptly pulled its application for the massive Frontier mine, with its chief executive saying the project landed right in the middle of a fraught debate about Indigenous issues and climate change.

On the other side of the contract, Fort McKay is looking for more control of its lands and resources. Chief Raymond Powder described the new plan as the “true meaning of reconciliation.” He told Fort McMurray Today a mine could some day deliver millions in annual revenues and royalties to the First Nation. “This is quite a blessing,” he said.

To no one’s surprise, Danielle Smith embraced the agreement, which fits in with her newly stated aim of doubling oil and natural gas production in the decades ahead. Of course, that target appears to fly in the face of a climate-constrained world, where long-term demand and growth for oil are far from certain. However, the Alberta Premier argues the province has the ability to both increase production and reach its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, using carbon capture.

Not everyone believes oil sands expansion is realistic, or desirable. For instance, north of Fort McKay in Fort Chipewyan, the First Nation is suing Alberta’s energy regulator for not immediately informing the community that water tainted with dangerous levels of toxins was seeping from the Kearl oil sands project. There, Chief Allan Adam is telling the regulator – and by extension, the province – it has problems to fix. “If you can’t do that, it’s time to shut down the oil sands.”

In Fort McKay, this isn’t the first time these particular reserve lands have been close to development. Fort McKay made a similar deal with Royal Dutch Shell in 2005 for a project that eventually came to naught.

Jim Boucher, Fort McKay’s chief at the time, said in an interview this month that the land was chosen by the First Nation, when it received additional reserve lands through a treaty land entitlement process in 2004, specifically because of its abundant bitumen deposits.

Mr. Boucher said he believes there’s support in the community for this new agreement with Suncor, a contrast from decades ago when the relationship with oil sands producers was “pretty nasty.” Then, Indigenous communities had little say in what was built, and the feeling was, “You’re coming into our territory, tearing it up and destroying our livelihoods.”

This new Fort McKay-Suncor agreement is also unusual in that the Smith government – in a near-constant battle with the federal Liberals – thanked Indigenous Services Minister Patty Hajdu for her leadership on the file. Ms. Hajdu announced amendments to regulations that will enable mining on the reserve land, also out of character for the climate-focused Trudeau Liberals. But the decision could provide the First Nations community with important economic benefits, said Ms. Hajdu’s office.

An actual oil sands mine isn’t a sure thing and, even if built, it’s likely a decade or more away. But if new projects are to be considered, this is likely the only way it will happen – with the explicit participation of and benefits accrued to Indigenous communities. Proponents would say not only is this imperative for economic reconciliation, but it also diminishes one of the key arguments from opponents: that Indigenous communities are against it.

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