EDMONTON – Backed by human rights organizations and conservation groups, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation will argue in Fort McMurray on Tuesday that it should be allowed to issue a legal challenge against Shell Canada’s proposed expansion of its Jackpine mine in northeastern Alberta.
In an appearance before the Energy Resources Conservation Board and Joint Environmental Review Panel, the First Nation will argue that the government has failed to meaningfully address the impact the development could have on the band’s traditional territory and is therefore in violation of its treaty rights.
A public hearing on Shell’s application is scheduled to begin on Oct. 29, but could be delayed if the First Nation is allowed to mount a constitutional challenge. Shell’s planned expansion would boost bitumen production by 100,000 barrels a day at its site on the east side of the Athabasca River 70 kilometres north of Fort McMurray. The company currently produces 255,000 barrels a day.
“We don’t want to take Shell to court, but we feel our treaty rights need to be addressed,” Eriel Deranger, a communications co-ordinator for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, said. “We have repeatedly asked for more meaningful consultation, and don’t believe the government has done its due diligence. We are taking this very seriously.”
Although Shell has acknowledged the project will contribute to a substantial loss of habitat for birds, caribou, bison and other animals, the company says it has extensive plans to mitigate the damage. As many as 20 groups, including the federal government, Syncrude, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo and five First Nations are scheduled to appear at public hearings that are expected to last for about three weeks.
The panel has set aside four days to hear constitutional arguments from the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which is being supported by native bands across North America and everyone from Amnesty International, the Council of Canadians, the David Suzuki Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Alberta and Canadian governments and Shell are expected to argue against any legal challenge.
“One of the reasons we are pursuing this is that there have been major cuts when it comes to environmental regulation and that has allowed a lot of projects to move forward unobstructed,” Deranger said. “First Nations’ treaty rights may be the only way to stop a project in its tracks.”