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Opposition mounts to Alberta oilsands scheme

Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith’s Landing First Nation just south of the NWT border in Alberta, points to a map showing areas of his community’s traditional territory that would be affected by Teck’s Frontier oilsands project. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

The proposed $20.5 billion Teck Resources oilsands project in northern Alberta faces opposition from NWT Indigenous groups over concerns of downstream pollution.

The Frontier scheme would, at its peak activity, mine about 260,000 barrels per day of bitumen from an area south of Fort Chipewyan, and west of the Athabasca River. It would also be located just east of Wood Buffalo National Park.

Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith’s Landing First Nation just south of the NWT border in Alberta, points to a map showing areas of his community’s traditional territory that would be affected by Teck’s Frontier oilsands project.
Blair McBride/NNSL photo

Over the 41 years of the mine’s expected life it would employ 7,000 people during the construction phase and 2,500 through direct operational jobs.

Fourteen First Nation and Metis communities in northern Alberta have signed benefits agreements with Teck over the project.

But all those numbers mean little for the community of Smith’s Landing if the price for the project’s success is contaminated water flowing downstream into the Slave River.

"The Peace and the Athabasca flow into the Slave (River) and into Great Slave Lake, and flows into the MacKenzie River and eventually into the Arctic Ocean. We're the gatekeepers of the water," said Gerry Cheezie, chief of Smith’s Landing First Nation, at a press conference Jan. 14 in Yellowknife.

His community lies in Alberta just south of Fort Smith and the NWT border and is nestled along shore of the Slave River.

Fighting on behalf of the Dene

"We're fighting on behalf of the Dene in the territory ourselves. We're not moving. After the tarsands are all finished and the companies leave we're still going to be here. We're going to be living with this thing," he said.

"I use the example of the Giant gold mines. The arsenic trioxide and the 237,000 tonnes that are underground here, that the taxpayer is paying for keeping it underground, safe and away from the environment. That's what's going to happen here as well. Because there are no monies being put in by the companies for reclamation and if they are it's minimal. The taxpayer is going to end up with a major bill down here.

"If this project gets the go ahead the CO2 emissions are going to go through the roof as far as Canada goes. The accord they signed in Paris is going to be meaningless."

The chief also criticized Teck’s handling of impact and benefit agreements, which he said were offered to communities as far south as Lac La Biche that lies 435 kilometres from Fort Chipewyan but not his community.

"They're upstream from the project. They're further away and they get benefits from it and we're closer and we don’t and we're downstream of all this stuff."

Cheezie fears that opposition from communities like his will get swept away in the momentum of the project, a situation he has seen before.

"Like any project that we've disagreed with in the province and tried to go through the regulatory process, it gets rubber stamped and approved. It happened in 1991 with the pulp mills on both the Peace and Athabasca, we fought against that. The Conservative government of the day approved it. And that's what happened here as well.

'Our rights are being trampled'

"Our rights are being trampled here. We have a treaty, we have inherent rights. The government talks about reconciliation, all big fancy words that don’t mean nothing to us if they're going to approve this project and kill us."

The NWT Métis Nation and the K'atl'odeeche First Nation (near Hay River) share Cheezie’s frustration that their concerns over the oilsands project are going unheard.

Adding to the stakes of the Frontier scheme is the Mackenzie River Basin Transboundary Waters Agreement that the NWT signed with Alberta and British Columbia in 2015.

That deal commits the signatories to protecting the ecosystems and waterways within the Mackenzie River Basin, which includes the Athabasca and Slave Rivers that pass through and downstream of the Frontier mine area.

Former Thebacha MLA Michael Miltenberger, who served for more than 20 years in the NWT legislative assembly and who in 2015, as Environment and Natural Resources minister, signed the agreements with Alberta and B.C., told News/North that the concerns of Indigenous communities are justified.

"Everybody is watching. We have a right to be concerned. The level of pollution and the spills and the record in Alberta – it's a concern for everybody," he said.

"(Frontier will have) 1.3 billion litres of toxic tailings in their ponds that they’ll want to release into the Athabasca River. They don’t have the technology yet to clean that up so it can be put back into the water system."

The agreement to protect the Mackenzie River Basin took more than 15 years of negotiations and while it doesn’t bar resource development it does require the parties to monitor and manage pollution.

"We have to see. This will be a test of the trans-boundary water agreement and Alberta's honouring of that agreement. There's a constant requirement to be vigilant," said Miltenberger.

A decision by the federal cabinet on the Frontier scheme is due at the end of February, though it could delay the move. Approval of the mine would be tied to Ottawa’s assessment of how Alberta is meeting Canada’s goal of being net-zero emissions by 2050.

Teck spokesperson Chris Stannell told News/North in a Jan. 31 email that his employer spent more than 10 years conducting consultations, including with all 14 First Nations within the project area. He pointed out that the process was described as "unprecedented" for an oilsands development of this type by the joint federal-provincial panel that reviewed it.

"Frontier will incorporate industry leading technologies and techniques for environmental performance," he wrote, adding 90 per cent of the water used in the process would be recycled. "This includes having one of the lowest water use intensities in the oilsands and safeguards will ensure regional water quality is protected."

"We have a proven track record of successfully closing and reclaiming sites," he wrote.
News/North was still waiting for comment from the territorial government at press time.