First Nations members join Albertans to challenge coal plan in the province

·3 min read

“There's not enough words in the English language to share how much this will impact First Nations; how much every time the land is destroyed, how much that that tears apart who we are as Niitsitapi,” said Latasha Calf Robe.

The member of the Blood Tribe (Kainai Nation) and founder of the Niitsitapi Water Protectors spoke at a town hall Jan. 21 focused on the changes to the provincial coal policy brought in by Alberta’s current UCP government.

A Coal Development Policy for Alberta, known also as the 1976 Coal Policy, was rescinded effective June 1, 2020 by the government. The policy protected large portions of land, like the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, from strip mining.

After intense public backlash to a December 2020 coal mining auction, the UCP government, through the office of Minister for Energy Sonya Savage, cancelled 11 pending leases for coal mining.

In a statement issued by the ministry Jan. 18, Savage said the “pause will provide our government with the opportunity to ensure that the interests of Albertans, as owners of mineral resources, are protected.”

But participants at the town hall made it clear that they do not believe the government is looking out for their interests, and the best-case scenario is to have the coal policy reinstated completely.

One of the main concerns is the potential for toxic amounts of selenium to enter the headwaters of the Old Man River, contaminating the drinking water of more than 200,000 Albertans, including the Blood Tribe.

The town hall was organized by NDP Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips, the former minister of Environment and Parks and minister responsible for the Climate Change Office. She said at least 10 per cent of her constituents are members of Blackfoot Nations and will be affected by the government’s coal policy changes.

In addition to concerns about selenium entering the drinking water, Phillips said the significant change in land use sets a dangerous precedent for the possibility of backroom deals on water licensing that would impact the availability of water for the Kainai Nation.

She said the Grassy Mountain Mine is getting access to water in large volumes in order to operate, alleging this would only be possible by some sort of skirting of the rules when it comes to water licensing.

“We are already in a very water-stressed area made only worse by the effects of climate change,” Phillips said.

“Already, we see communities all across this corridor struggling with (lack of water) or even their water infrastructure… because climate change changes when you have more water and the volumes and, you know, extreme weather events and so on.”

The mounting criticism over the lack of consultation with First Nations, as well as concerns over the potential environmental impacts, have resulted in stakeholders from across the province coming together to file a judicial review of the rescission of the coal policy. That is set to begin today, Jan. 26 in the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench.

The review argues for the policy to be restored.

“These kinds of projects have zero legitimacy from seven generations beyond me, beyond us,” said Diandra Bruised Head, a member of the Blood Tribe council, at the town hall.

The mayor of Lethbridge, Chris Spearman, and the former premier of Alberta, now Leader of the Opposition, Rachel Notley, both spoke out against the rescission of the coal policy.

“Albertans have overwhelmingly said that the eastern slope should be devoted to watershed protection, recreation tourism, and just, of course, that the land itself should be respected for the way it has interacted with original peoples for so many years before anybody else was here,” said Notley.

Mayor Spearman talked about the potential dangers to commercial and drinking water for the residents of Lethbridge and the surrounding areas.

“To have this go forward and have the headwaters potentially contaminated is a huge betrayal of trust,” said Spearman.

CJWE

By Tsering Asha, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CJWE