Alberta is launching talks with First Nations leaders aimed at removing the risk of clashes over a major land-use policy for the oil sands region, partly by offering more aboriginal participation.
A government-appointed panel has warned that the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, in force since 2012, could face court challenges from First Nations over traditional territory rights and other issues. The potential stakes are billions of dollars worth of future oil sands developments in northeastern Alberta, as well as recreation and conservation land uses.
Some aboriginal leaders had voiced frustration over the time it has taken Premier Rachel Notley's government to respond to recommendations submitted more than a year ago in the panel's report, but Environment and Parks Minister Shannon Phillips said it was crucial to present well-thought-out plans to address the concerns after past efforts by the previous government did not take a broad enough look at the issues.
"For too long, we had this sort of narrow consultation check-box approach and all other grievances were set aside and not prioritized at all. I get the sense that people never really felt listened to. They weren't understood and that work was not braided into the overall approach of government," Ms. Phillips said in an interview on Tuesday.
"That's why it's not just tacking up six bullet points of government response. It's not. It can't be. It's got to be a series of different, thoughtful tracks."
The government is asking communities to join consultations she referred to as an "indigenous table" that will study ways to incorporate traditional knowledge and land use into government planning and environmental management. It will also address the cumulative effects of development on First Nations and Métis people, she wrote in letters sent to community leaders on Monday.
The Lower Athabasca Regional Plan will be reviewed in 2017, and the government hopes the consultation will produce changes to address the aboriginal communities' concerns, she said.
The ruling New Democrats inherited the policy from the former Progressive Conservative government. It was the result of years of studies into how to balance various interests as oil-sands development boomed. The plan raised early concern from industry because it put some potential oil-sands reserves off-limits to development.
The panel, chaired by lawyer Jeffrey Gilmour, consulted with half-a-dozen First Nation and Métis groups over the course of a year and concluded that the Lower Athabasca policy could infringe on aboriginal rights.
This week, one of the groups in the region, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, revived a court challenge to the approval of a pipeline from the oil sands. The First Nation says the provincial government violated its rights by asserting it was not directly affected by the pipeline, although the band says the route crosses land it claims as traditional territory.
Ms. Phillips said she is moving forward with measures in response to the panel's report. They include exploring how First Nations can co-manage provincial wildland parks, directing the province's chief scientist to work with aboriginal communities to assist with monitoring the environmental impact of the oil sands, and adding cultural and social values to a new biodiversity program.
"That is the piece that has been missing – that thoughtful engagement and actually listening to what is being asked and incorporating that into the art of the possible within the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan," Ms. Phillips said.
Mr. Gilmour, the panel chair, said he is heartened that the government is addressing the issues, but suggested it decide on some deadlines for various measures to prevent talks from going on endlessly. He also said some aspects should have federal participation.