Land is at the root of every struggle over resources in the world. Whether it is the conflict between indigenous groups and oil companies in northern Alberta or the ongoing Standing Rock protests over the Dakota Access pipeline, a culmination of political, economic and regulatory failures have left opposed communities with no recourse except protest and litigation. As the Standing Rock demonstrations in North Dakota show no sign of waning, this is an important time to reflect on the issues underpinning conflicts between aboriginal groups, oil sands projects and pipelines at their point of origin: Alberta.
One of the first directives Premier Rachel Notley gave when she came into office last year was to instruct each of her ministers to review the policies within their respective departments for compliance with the United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. More than a year later and amid one of Alberta's worst economic downturns, Premier Notley's push for pipeline approvals to get Alberta's oil to market is being met with criticism by indigenous groups pointing to the contradictions in expediting project approvals on the one hand, while trying to gain aboriginal consent on the other.
There is one case in court currently that could set a different tone for the future of pipeline approval in Alberta. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) has filed for a judicial review of the approvals issued to TransCanada Corp. for the Grand Rapids project in 2014, due to the provincial government's consultation office's failure to instruct TransCanada to consult with the band about the project. This is a perfect example of the flawed system in the heart of oil country.
The duty to consult is triggered in Alberta when a company proposes an exploration or development project within the traditional territory of an indigenous group. It's the responsibility of the consultation office to advise industry about groups they need to consult. But the major issue behind oil sands development in Alberta is the point at which consultation is triggered.
Alberta's oil sands are among the largest petroleum deposits in the world. Access to the oil sands is managed through a tenure system administrated by the provincial government. Companies that obtain oil sands leases are obliged to prove out and develop those resources within specified time frames according to Alberta's Oil Sands Tenure Guidelines.
The fact that consultation with indigenous groups does not occur until the point of exploration or, in some cases, until the point of project development, means that if indigenous groups are opposed to the project, their interests and concerns are pitted directly against the company's.
If issues can't be resolved through consultation, groups may have the opportunity bring them forward during the regulatory process. ACFN pulled out of the regulatory hearings on the Grand Rapids project (between Fort McMurray and Edmonton) in 2014, claiming the system was stacked against them.
There is little evidence to contradict that assertion: Despite the overhaul of Alberta's regulatory process in 2013, not a single major project in the Athabasca oil sands region has ever been denied as a result of the public-review process. ACFN's only remaining option was a court challenge, and we will see those results in the coming weeks.
While the Crown may currently hold legal rights to oil sands reserves, Alberta's oil sands regions fall within Treaty 8 and the traditional lands belonging to 23 different aboriginal groups in Alberta. Consultation should occur before land is even leased out, at the point where the government is making a decision about the designation of that land base.
But the government's approach to resource extraction still carries the colonial vestiges of dispossessing indigenous groups from their land in order to maximize economic gains – whether that involves extracting oil resources or constructing infrastructure to get those resources to world markets. Until we repair the foundation on which rights to land use are built, we are only going to see more conflict.
Amanda Annand is an Alberta-based writer. She has lived and worked in Treaty 8 Territory and the Athabasca oil sands region, working with both government and aboriginal groups.