By Vincent McDermott
Fort McMurray Today
Two more First Nations bands in the oilsands have withdrawn from a joint federal-provincial environmental monitoring program billed as "world class," citing “frustrating, time consuming talks” and an “unclear direction" from the federal and provincial governments.
As of Jan. 21, the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation have left the Joint Oil Sands Monitoring program, after Fort McKay’s Metis and First Nation community left in October.
“A lot of the issues we have had with JOSM are in the terms of reference for inclusion of First Nations within the program’s mandates,” said Eriel Deranger, a spokesperson for the ACFN. “Our biggest concern is that under current direction, JOSM does not meaningfully include First Nations, our traditional knowledge, or our treaty rights into its mandate.”
Melody Lepine, who serves as a liaison between the Mikisew Cree First Nation and governments, echoed Deranger's arguments.
"We were very clear with what we wanted: that our traditional knowledge play a role, that we be involved in the decision making and design," she said. "We could only sit a table for so long with so much other work to do in our region, so we left with ACFN. How can the province call this program 'world class' without the support of local First Nations?"
ACFN warned they were not happy with JOSM’s mandate when Fort McKay First Nation withdrew from the program, when Deranger warned her community had “the same concerns” in October.
"We just had enough of these meetings that went nowhere," said ACFN chief Allan Adam on Thursday. "It was clear things weren't going anywhere, that we were wasting time and money."
"We wanted to be more utilized"
Daniel Stuckless, manager for environment and regulatory affairs for Fort McKay First Nation, told Today in October that band leadership felt they were not being valued in the program’s consultation process.
The First Nation was particularly interested in becoming involved with the technical details of the program, such as monitoring of air quality and contaminants. Fort McKay First Nation has experience working with monitoring groups like the Wood Buffalo Environmental Agency, and practical experience monitoring the environment.
Instead, aboriginal leadership felt they were being pigeonholed into providing solely traditional and cultural knowledge.
“We were looking for full participation across the program,” Stuckless said. “We wanted to be more utilized.”
Fort McMurray Metis taking "wait-and-see" approach
Jason Maloney, a spokesperson with Alberta Environment, says there are no current plans to meet with leadership, but plans are being discussed.
While JOSM has lost support of the three largest and most influential aboriginal bands in the oilsands, the province counters that there are still more than 40 bands participating in the program.
“We want the input of all aboriginal people in the area and we are still moving forward with JOSM,” said Maloney. “We encourage that they do participate, but we are going to have to keep moving forward."
In Wood Buffalo, groups staying in JOSM include the Fort McMurray First Nation, as well as Metis locals from Fort Chipewyan, Conklin and Fort McMurray.
“We’re still involved in the process. We certainly want to see what the final product looks like,” said Kyle Harrietha, general manager for Fort McMurray Local 1985.
Harrietha says leaving JOSM has not been discussed by the local, but says Metis leadership also has the same frustrations as the three latest groups to leave the program. Of particular concern is a reduced peatlands monitoring budget.
“I certainly don’t blame them. It’s a frustrating process with limited stakeholder engagements,” he said. “There always has to be budget considerations, but this is supposed to be a world class monitoring program governed by science and we’re not seeing that.”
JOSM, announced in 2012, is supposed to measure levels of pollution in air, land, water and wildlife, with all data collected released online. The federal-provincial program ends in 2015.
The annual $50 million bill is paid for by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, which has urged Fort McKay to return to the program. A spokesperson could not be reached Thursday evening.