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Construction at the Fort McKay First Nation outdoor amphitheatre, which will seat 1,800 people at completion next year. (Kelly Cryderman/The Globe and Mail)
Construction at the Fort McKay First Nation outdoor amphitheatre, which will seat 1,800 people at completion next year. (Kelly Cryderman/The Globe and Mail)

The dispute the entire oil industry is watching Add to ...

In Alberta, the list includes Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, which is arguing a Court of Appeal case that the cumulative effects of hundreds of oil sands and other industrial projects have eroded its ability to hunt, fish and trap. The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which has taken legal action against both companies and governments in the past, says a ruling in favour of Fort McKay would help potential legal challenges of Shell’s expansion plans at its Jackpine mine project, or oil sands projects north of the Firebag River. It describes the lands there as “cultural protection areas” – including Teck Resources Ltd.’s proposed Frontier project and Shell’s Pierre River project.

“If Fort McKay can set precedents for what’s necessary to preserve their cultural rights, it strengthens our arguments,” said Eriel Deranger, a spokeswoman for the Athabasca Chipewyan.

A number of other companies, including Sunshine Oilsands Ltd. and its large-scale West Ells development near the Moose Lake reserve, could also be affected by a buffer zone.


Surrounded by industry

On a riverfront street in the hamlet of Fort McKay, band member Lee Wilson says the rest of Canada should be watching to see what will result from the First Nation’s legal challenge. He believes the result will set a precedent for cases having to do with industry encroachment on treaty lands.

But for him, the case is personal. He says he needs the peace and quiet of Moose Lake – officially called the Namur Lake reserve lands – where there’s a smattering of cabins, clean water, plentiful fish, and a high-quality moose and caribou habitat.

“The reason why we go up there is basically to get away from the situation here in Fort McKay, because there is really no place else to go.”

The hamlet of Fort McKay has Suncor and Syncrude mines directly to the south. The Shell-controlled Muskeg River and Jackpine mines are to the east. Canadian Natural Resource Ltd.’s Horizon project is north. And to the west, Total SA’s Joslyn North Mine is under construction.

Looking out the front window of his bungalow, Mr. Wilson can see the night sky glowing from the lights of the oil sands operations, many within a 20-kilometre radius. During bird migration periods in the late fall and early spring, the cannons that are used to scare the fowl away from tailings ponds are heard on a regular basis.

“The cannons sound like gunshots going off every two minutes ... Boom, boom, boom. All day, all night,” Mr. Wilson, 41, says sitting in his kitchen.

“If you drive around at night, it’s like a whole bunch of little cities all over the place.”

At the same time, Mr. Wilson is a busy partner in a trucking and fluid hauling company that services the oil sands industry. He says he understands the economic importance of the oil sands.

“It not only feeds our economic prosperity and growth, but it feeds the rest of Canada,” he says.

But Mr. Wilson is disheartened that oil sands mines have eaten up his community’s best hunting and trapping grounds. When he wants to escape to the wilderness, he says it’s difficult to get through oil sands security checkpoints and gates.

The father of five is also concerned about the health of Fort McKay members, living so close to oil sands mines, and playfully dares you to drink the tap water given that many houses in the hamlet are stocked with bottled water.

That is why Moose Lake is so important to band members. In October, the Alberta Court of Appeal surprised many industry watchers when it gave Fort McKay the nod to appeal the Alberta Energy Regulator’s (AER) decision to approve the Dover project.


Economic benefits

Fort McKay says it’s not against the project as a whole, but wants the buffer zone to include what is now the proposed northern section of the Dover project, which is being developed by Brion Energy, a joint venture between PetroChina and Athabasca Oil Corp.

Brion Energy and the Alberta Energy Regulator say that’s the location of the highest-quality bitumen reservoirs. The company said more than one-third of the predicted 4.1 billion barrels of bitumen to be produced over the Dover project’s 65-year lifespan will come from the northern part of the project area.

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