A government-appointed panel that warned a major Alberta land-use policy opens the door to First Nations legal challenges is still waiting for a detailed response from the ruling New Democrats, more than a year after it submitted its report.
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 area policy risks infringing on aboriginal rights by putting industrial and recreational interests ahead of traditional land use.
So far, Environment Minister Shannon Phillips's department has said little publicly about the findings, which the panel delivered in June, 2015, Mr. Gilmour said. The Minister made the report available to the public in May, 2016.
"We thought they'd at least address whether they accepted or rejected some of our recommendations. Nothing came out."All they did was say, 'Yes, we're going to release this thing to the public.' There was no press release. It was all very quiet," said Mr. Gilmour.
The former Progressive Conservative government instituted the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan in 2012 as the first of several land-use regimes covering the province. It was the result of years of studies into how to balance various interests and cumulative effects as oil-sands development expanded, with billions of industry dollars directed at projects. The plan raised industry concern by making some potential oil-sands reserves off-limits to development.
The collapse in crude prices over the past two years has squelched much of the planned expansion, but an improvement in industry conditions could rekindle a rush to develop in the region.
An Environment Ministry official said Ms. Phillips was not available to comment on the report last week, as she was attending a conference in Mexico, but said she may be able to speak about it later in the upcoming week.
A key issue that kept cropping up during consultation with the First Nations was traditional land use beyond the borders of reserves, especially following a 2014 Supreme Court ruling which gave aboriginal groups greater control over what they claim as ancestral lands.
"I think the traditional land-use thing has to be developed between the Alberta government and the federal government," Mr. Gilmour said. "They have to work to develop the traditional land-use areas that are represented in their treaty and aboriginal rights. This is not something that these guys are just dreaming up."
The affected communities include Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Mikisew Cree First Nation, Cold Lake First Nations, Onion Lake Cree Nation, Fort McKay First Nation and Fort McKay Métis Community Association as well as Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation.
The Mikisew Cree, the largest First Nation in the northeastern Alberta region, have asked the government what it intends to do with the report and its recommendations, and is still waiting for answers. The previous government had "largely ignored" communities' concerns about the policy's impact on culture and treaty rights, said Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations for Mikisew Cree.
"We're again indicating what the concerns are and are willing to move forward with Alberta on a new plan, which will essentially protect treaty rights. That is what we've been saying since day one when the whole land-use framework was shared with us by the previous government," Ms. Lepine said.
The panel's report recommends the government set up a traditional land-use framework to deal with the thorny issue as it arises during development applications. It also recommends devising a way to balance industrial activity with First Nations' constitutionally protected rights to deal with the cumulative impact of development.
During the process, the panel, which also included Sawridge Band councillor Winona Twin, chafed at the limited jurisdiction they had to address concerns, and it complained that the government did not directly address First Nation concerns during the review.
"That puzzled us. They set this thing up. Maybe – when we talked around the table we wondered – it was geared to fail," he said. "In other words, if you're narrowing our jurisdiction so we're only able to address the size of the areas they're setting up for recreation and so forth, that really limits us."