GATINEAU, Que. – A First Nations leader from northern Alberta is urging his fellow chiefs to resist buying into the arguments of environmentalists opposed to pipeline projects and the oilsands.
Fort McKay Chief Jim Boucher said his small community of 800 Cree and Dene people is dependent on the oil industry for its economic well-being.
In the 1980s, Boucher said his reserve turned to the oil industry when its trapping economy was “going in the tank”, noting the partnership has led to employment for band members.
“We are pro-oilsands,” he said. “If it wasn’t for the oilsands, my people would be in poverty right now.”
The debate about controversial energy projects, including the Kinder Morgan pipeline, recently approved by the Liberal government, took centre stage Wednesday at an Assembly of First Nations meeting.
“We want you to understand that it is not a clear-cut issue,” Boucher said.
“Our people will be affected if the economy goes down in Alberta, especially the oilsands economy. Our people will be put out of work – we will back on that social list.”
It is critical to ensure industry does not divide First Nations, said Kanesatake Grand Chief Serge Simon – a Quebec Mohawk leader who is part of the Treaty Alliance Against Tar Sands Expansion.
In September, indigenous people from Canada and the U.S. signed an agreement to fight plans to build pipelines, saying additional development will harm the environment.
“I’m not going to let the industry divide Chief Boucher and myself,” Simon said. “I just don’t agree with expansion of the tarsands.”
Indigenous leaders have a responsibility to block threats to the land, water and their people, he added.
“First Nations are going to be the first climate refugees,” Simon said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Natural Resource Minister Jim Carr personally contacted Simon and apologized for remarks for suggesting “defence forces” might respond to non-peaceful protests.
Canada not only tolerates dissent, but it embraces dissent, because it is an essential characteristic of being Canadian, Carr added outside a Liberal caucus meeting on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also addressed the controversy over Carr’s remarks directly during his Tuesday speech to the chiefs, suggesting it was an “unfortunate comment.”
AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde has acknowledged that First Nations are split over pipelines, including the Kinder Morgan link between Alberta and suburban Vancouver.
His organization does not have an official position on the project, but Bellegarde said communities maintain the right to self-determination.