Alberta minister promises repeal of First Nations consultation law

EDMONTON – Alberta will repeal legislation concerning aboriginal consultation on resource projects that is widely despised among First Nations.

Indigenous Relations Minister Richard Feehan said Wednesday the government would withdraw Bill 22, which created a levy to fund the province’s Aboriginal Consultation Office.

“Our process on this, with the blessing of the aboriginal communities, is to withdraw Bill 22, which will be happening next week in the legislature,” Feehan said.

The bill, which has never been proclaimed into law, is being withdrawn as part of efforts to reform the consultation office, which is already led to at least two lawsuits.

The most recent was filed Friday by the Fort McKay First Nation. It alleges Alberta’s way of weighing oilsands development against aboriginal concerns ties the hands of First Nations while projects on or near their lands proceed.

“As long as they can keep you in negotiations or consultations, they can do that forever while they approve projects,” said Karin Buss, a lawyer representing the Fort McKay First Nation.

The lawsuit seeks to overturn a ruling from the consultation office that said Calgary-based Prosper Petroleum had done enough consultation on a proposed $390-million in situ oilsands mine.

The mine is on land former premier Jim Prentice agreed to protect in a pact signed last March. The Moose Lake area consists of traditional and reserve lands, north of Fort McMurray, that the band considers sacred and central to its life.

Prentice’s deal has never been implemented and exists mostly on paper. Fort McKay pointed that out to the consultation office and added the cumulative effects of development are destroying the band’s ability to practice its treaty rights.

The office’s response was that it’s only allowed to consider narrow questions limited to the immediate impacts of the development.

The consultation office will now sends the proposal to the Alberta Energy Regulator, which is specifically forbidden from considering treaty rights. That means Prosper’s proposal could go through the entire regulatory process without having to answer Fort McKay’s concerns.

“The regulatory system and process of consultation created by the province of Alberta … is sharp practice,” the lawsuit alleges.

The province, the regulator and the consultation office all declined to release Prosper’s report. The lawsuit claims Prosper’s Rigel project shouldn’t even go to a public hearing until plans and procedures exist to protect Moose Lake before development begins.

“All we want is for the plan to precede development,” said Buss. “We can’t continue to have development before plans are in place.”

The government faces another lawsuit over the consultation office filed by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Feehan said how the government assesses aboriginal consultation will be redesigned with input from First Nations.

“We understand a problem exists. I’m not trying to defend the previous government’s way of doing things. We are working with the community, and our intentions and our actions from now are very clearly moving toward a new form of relationship.”

The current consultation office rulings will stand, he said. The office will take another look at the Fort McKay issue once regulatory hearings are complete.

Aboriginals have noticed the gap between statements from Alberta governments and its agencies on reconciliation and what actually happens, said band spokesman Alvaro Pinto.

“You lead by example,” he said. “We’ve met so many times with stakeholders and we’ve given them our input. I think there is a distance between their intent and their actions.”

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version had Bill 22 created the Aboriginal Consultation Office.