Canadian indigenous environmental groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Stand-Your-Ground Alliance, have filed a court action over the Ford government’s fast-tracking of new housing development in a remote northern Alberta community.
The cities of Nipawin and Maskwacis are on Canada’s Blood reserve and share concerns about the possible impacts of fracking. The Canadian government has entered into a development agreement with Stantec Consulting, an oil and gas services company, to manage a new development, scheduled to start by September 2020. At least 10 new houses were recently built and other contracts are being negotiated with five other companies.
The legal action against the Blood reserve is backed by “loads of evidence” of potential damages to the environment and indigenous cultures, said David Miller, an attorney with Canadian environmental law firm Ecojustice. Miller said the next hearing is scheduled for Nov. 1.
The Nipawin Spirit Council, a local council representing indigenous peoples, opposed Stantec Consulting from the outset and says the contract is an insult. “Building six single family houses and giving them away to the rich and powerful is a slap in the face to our people,” says Benoit Boucher, an organizer for the Nipawin Spirit Council.
Residents of Blood reserve have long experienced “damaging and disruptive oil and gas drilling, fracking and other energy industry work. Indigenous people in and around Maskwacis are now facing similar disasters and studies have indicated the same kinds of impacts exist in Nipawin, too,” said director Nathalie Beauchesne of the Indigenous Environmental Network.
The lawyers for the Indigenous Environmental Network also want to pressure the Ford government into reversing the decision to fast-track construction of new housing, saying the province should go back to the drawing board with the proposal.
Federal Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi, meanwhile, said a “new sense of urgency” is necessary to address the housing problem. Sohi, who is also the economy minister, visited Nipawin, Maskwacis and a different First Nation community in Quebec this week and said there has been a 67 percent increase in First Nations people living below the poverty line.
Matt Loop, spokesperson for the Indigenous Environmental Network, said there is no official government assessment of the impact of fracking in the Blood reserve. Instead, he said, “a backroom deal like this is indicative of the very real tragedy that is indigenous people being ignored when it comes to energy development.”
Last month, Shell signed an agreement with a First Nation, the First Nation of Alberta, where it will develop 16 new wells over five years.
The federal Liberal government has promised to clean up decades of damage from Canada’s oil-and-gas industry, and most recently, introduced a new set of rules in April and conducted public consultations on proposed regulations in October.
Ottawa has spent more than $15 billion on clean-up, but indigenous groups claim that a host of natural disasters that include the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, have only exposed a much larger and deadly problem – and continue to wreak havoc in Canada.
“Cracks in the earth caused by oil and gas extraction,” says NWN’s Beauchesne, “may soon be showing up for people living in or just visiting these communities.”
This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.
Steven Grattan is a freelance journalist and the author of “Paranoia Rising: A True Story of Terror, Betrayal and Betrayal of Faith.”