Aboriginals demand veto power over projects

EDMONTON — Two aboriginal bands in Alberta say their treaty rights have been violated by industrial overuse of the Athabasca River and they want veto power over some new oilsands projects.

EDMONTON — Two aboriginal bands in Alberta say their treaty rights have been violated by industrial overuse of the Athabasca River and they want veto power over some new oilsands projects.

“When it comes to those concerns, that’s pretty much what we’re seeking — veto power in regards to development,” said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, located downstream of the oilsands in Fort Chipewyan. “We want to have say in development in our region in regards to being sustainable.”

The Athabasca Chipewyan and the Mikisew Cree made the claim Thursday after releasing a study documenting how low river levels restrict their ability to use their land, most of which can only be reached by boat.

Researcher Craig Candler interviewed a total of 27 members from both bands. He asked them a set of standard questions on how water levels and water quality have affected them. He heard that water levels have been declining for decades to the point that boats can longer get into many lakes and tributaries that used to be productive hunting and fishing grounds.

“If people can’t move around their territories, they cannot practise their traditions or their rights,” he said.

One Mikisew elder estimated 80 per cent of the band’s traditional territory is inaccessible for weeks at a time during the spring and summer. Other lakes and creeks have gone dry. That breaks treaty guarantees of being able to use their land for subsistence and to pass down their culture to young people, said elder Pat Marcel of Fort Chipewyan.

“I can’t show them how I used to do it,” he said. “I can’t set traps where there’s no muskrats. ”Some of them look at me and say, ‘Did you really do that?’

“I have 21 great-grandchildren and for them to never be able to live the way I lived is really something. My culture will be the next to go.”

Band members acknowledge that problems in the Athabasca Delta predate the recent boom in the oilsands. Most say problems began in the 1960s and that drought and British Columbia’s Bennett Dam played major roles.

But Candler said oilsands development over the last decade has made things worse.

“When the river is high, withdrawals probably don’t matter as much,” he said. “But when the river is low, every withdrawal is making things lower.

“If the river is low, every drop counts.”

The report says that at least 1,600 cubic metres of water per second need to be flowing in the river to allow area aboriginals full access to their territory. It says that any industrial use that would bring that level below 400 cubic metres per second should require permission from the bands.