Varcoe: Fort McKay First Nation calls for UCP to approve Moose Lake plan

Fort McKay First Nations Chief Mel Grandjamb makes a speech at his inauguration ceremony at the Fort McKay Arena on June 6, 2019. The development-friendly Fort McKay First Nation is asking the government to protect area surrounding two lakes near the Fort McMurray oilsands. Laura Beamish / Postmedia

The chief of the Fort McKay First Nation remembers when he first went out to the Moose Lake area in northern Alberta to learn how to hunt and trap with his family.

Mel Grandjamb, who became chief earlier this spring, says that trip more than four decades ago gave him an appreciation of the cultural significance of the area to his family, friends and community.

That’s why one of the most active First Nations in natural resource development in Canada is launching a new campaign Tuesday, calling on the Alberta government to adopt a long-discussed management plan to ensure orderly development for the area around Moose Lake, protecting its ecological and cultural integrity.

“The first time I entered that lake I was nine years old and I entered that lake with my father and uncles, and going up to that lake was almost like a dream for me,” Grandjamb said Monday.

“Back in the day, when we were younger growing up, we were always told, ‘Yes, you are going to go up to that area to learn how to hunt, how to trap.’ And that’s what happened…

“It’s important for me that this area is retained. Because at the end of the day, yes there will be development. However we have to ensure it is done responsibly.”

This area of Moose Lake is our last, last area of wilderness,

Chief Mel Grandjamb

The Fort McKay First Nation is headed to the Alberta Court of Appeal on Tuesday to argue against the Alberta Energy Regulator’s approval of the Rigel oilsands project.

The development by Prosper Petroleum is expected to produce 10,000 barrels per day and was approved by the AER in June 2018. The approval came while the previous government was continuing ongoing discussions with the First Nation about the Moose Lake Area Management Plan, but it has yet to be approved by the province.

The in-situ oilsands project is expected to cost about $390 million to build, according to previous news reports.

According to the AER approval, the Fort McKay First Nation opposed the development because Moose Lake is a “refuge that must be protected from industrial development to ensure that members of Fort McKay First Nation can continue to meaningfully exercise their Aboriginal and treaty rights from the Moose Lake reserves.”

Yet, the AER concluded the Rigel oilsands project “is in the public interest, taking into account its expected impacts on Aboriginal and treaty rights and traditional land use, its expected social and economic impacts, its impacts on the environment, and its impacts on landowners.”

Sander Duncanson, a lawyer representing Prosper, said the management plan has been under development for more than a decade and “we don’t know when that plan is going to be in place; we don’t know what the plan is going to say.”

As for the broader question of the oilsands development, he noted: “The AER concluded that the project can be carried out safely. And the AER found that the project is in the public interest of Alberta.”

The Fort McKay First Nation wants the courts to set aside the regulator’s approval.


Separately, the First Nation is asking the Kenney government to move ahead with Moose Lake Area Management Plan, which would set down rules on what can happen within the area.

The management zone is located about 65 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray, and would cover a 10-kilometre radius around Gardiner Lake (also known as Moose Lake) and Namur Lake (also known as Buffalo Lake). The oilsands’ central processing facility is proposed to be within the Moose Lake Reserves.

A draft copy of the Moose Lake management plan posted on Alberta Environment’s website last year states it will set regulatory controls that will “contribute to maintaining treaty rights and opportunities for traditional use and cultural practices” of the Fort McKay First Nation and other Indigenous communities, and “continued opportunities for economic development.”

It also states bitumen development “will not be sterilized. Controlled, orderly and phased development along with co-ordinated access will enable sustainable development of those resources.”

It should be pointed out Fort McKay First Nation has a long history of working in the oilsands, successfully setting up the Fort McKay Group of Companies in 1986, which now has annual revenues of $500 million and employs more than 1,400 people.

A sign outside the entrance of the Fort McKay First Nation’s Caribou Industrial Park north of Fort McMurray on Sunday, August 11, 2019. Vincent McDermott / Postmedia

Three years ago, Fort McKay and the Mikisew Cree First Nations teamed up to buy 49 per cent of Suncor Energy’s bitumen storage terminal for $503 million.

“We are not anti-development,” Grandjamb said. “Our message is not to stop development but to develop the resource responsibly and, more importantly, protect our treaty rights. And the Prosper project can go if it meets the criteria of the plan we worked so hard to develop.”

Environment Minister Jason Nixon declined to comment on the legal case, but said the Moose Lake management plan aims to resolve issues related to resource development and its impacts on traditional land uses.

“We are continuing to work towards solutions,” Nixon said.

Grandjamb, who worked for Syncrude in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said the First Nation and government have spent years working on the management blueprint to set out responsible resource development.

The community has been waiting for various provincial governments to give it the green light. The change of government this year has now thrust the issue into the hands of the UCP.

“This area of Moose Lake is our last, last area of wilderness,” Grandjamb added.

“We are asking Mr. Kenney and his government to help us cross the finish line and approve the Moose Lake plan as it is, so we can continue to grow Alberta’s energy sector together.”

Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.

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