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First Nations hosting oilsands conference in Fort McMurray

Fort McMurray Today

As tensions between Aboriginal communities and industry and governments flair, the Fort McKay First Nation is hosting a conference next week in Fort McMurray, bringing together all major oilsands players for dialogue.

This is the first conference of its kind that the band has hosted.

“Fort McKay has a very long history working with industry and other First Nations and Metis communities,” said Barrie Robb, CEO of business development. “Things change in these relationships and with the law, the way companies work and communicate. From Fort McKay’s perspective, it’s really important to keep talking and have a dialogue between industry and First Nations.”

The Fort McKay First Nation has been hailed by many industry groups as a model of aboriginal success in the oilsands. The band’s group of companies currently provides workers and contract services to oilsands projects, including for major companies like Suncor and Syncrude, bringing in $100 million in annual revenue.

At the same time, Fort McKay’s First Nation and Metis community is in the midst of a legal battle over a planned SAGD project by Athabasca Oil Corp., which plans to extract more than 250,000 barrels of bitumen per day.

The band is not entirely opposed to the project, but they argue current plans will harm territory near the Fort McKay Moose Lake reserve, Gardiner Lake and Namur Lake, approximately 100 kilometres northwest of Fort McMurray. There are concerns about environmental and light pollution from the project, which could generate over 9,000 jobs in Alberta. The band is willing to embrace the project if a 20 kilometre buffer zone around the site is created.

“What can we learn about the past and present? What will the next two years look like in terms of industry and development? We’re trying to stimulate that discussion between all parties,” said Robb.

At the same time, Robb says a major theme will be the future of indigenous issues in the oilsands as Alberta continues to attract business to the region.

“Various First Nations have done things they should be extremely proud of. How can and how have First Nations worked together in this economy? What issues do we face as a people?” asks Robb. “That is going to get a lot of discussion. It is a good way to inform industry about indigenous and environmental issues.”

Confirmed speakers and guests represent a diverse cross section of aboriginal and industrial players.

Confirmed peakers include Chief Jim Boucher of the Fort McKay First Nation and Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. Kevin Nagel of Keyano College, JP Gladu of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business, lawyer Bill Gallagher, and John Rhind, vice-president of heavy oil, at Royal Dutch Shell, will also speak.

Premier Alison Redford has also been invited to be the keynote speaker, but she has not confirmed an appearance.

Journalist Wab Kinew, host of Al Jazeera America's Faultlines, will emcee the event.

The two day conference will be held Jan. 23 and 24 at the Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre.

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