Alberta has voted to pass controversial legislation that bans protests near pipelines and mines as First Nations leaders appeal the province’s decision to suspend environmental monitoring and reporting activities in the oil sands region.
Bill 1 or the “Critical Infrastructure Defence Act” prevents several forms of disruption—protests, trespassing, interfering with operations, or causing damage—in or around “essential infrastructure.” Critical infrastructure is defined as pipelines, oil sands sites, and mining sites as well as utilities, streets, highways, railways, and telecom towers and equipment.
First-time offenders can receive up to $10,000 in fines, six months jail time, or both. Subsequent offences will face fines of up to $25,000 and possible jail time.
Many leaders in Alberta criticized the bill as being anti-democratic, saying it will violate Indigenous rights as well as the right to protest. Alberta Liberal Party leader, David Khan, called the legislation “draconian” and “authoritarian,” and said it “criminalizes peaceful public protests.”
The bill was first introduced in the Alberta Legislature in February as people across Canada mobilized in support of Wet’suwet’en hereditary chiefs who have been fighting the development of the $6.6 billion Coastal GasLink pipeline through their territory. It has already passed its third reading and is now awaiting royal assent.
Alberta is already facing heavy scrutiny for doing away with environmental regulations during the pandemic.
In May the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) suspended environmental reporting regulations to numerous oil sands operations and later expanded it to all energy-related industries in the province.
Now, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McKay First Nation, and Mikisew Cree First Nation have filed a joint appeal because they say they were not consulted before the decision was made.
The First Nations say the lack of regulations makes it difficult to identify and mitigate the environmental and health impacts of the oil sands in traditional territories.
In an interview with VICE, the Alberta Regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations slammed Alberta Energy Regulator and said the regulator has “broken Treaty obligations” by not asking First Nations first.
“We were not consulted on this,” said Chief Marlene Poitras, adding she found out on the news “like everyone else.”
“They’re breaking our constitutionally protected rights to have a say in how the land is cared for,” Poitras said, referring to the traditional lands of the Fort McKay First Nations, which have been almost completely overtaken by oil sands development.
In a statement to VICE, AER spokesperson Shawn Roth said the agency made the decision to scrap some of its environmental monitoring processes to comply with COVID-19 orders issued under the Public Health Act.
“Because the public health orders limit physical interactions, industry, like all Albertans, have been challenged to conduct day to day activities and still comply with the orders that are in place to protect public health,” he said.
The leader of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, located approximately 180 km upstream along the Athabasca River from Fort McKay, is calling on the regulator to immediately review its decision.
“There should never be a choice between protecting the health and safety of those workers and protecting the environment and the health of First Nations people,” said Chief Allan Adam. “Neither of these are negotiable.”
Tony Boschmann, former Alberta environment investigator who monitored the oil sands for four years, also criticized the decision. He says there’s only a handful of staff monitoring at each oil sands facility, and they mostly work outdoors. That amounts to social distancing “heaven,” he said.
“Oil sands extraction and oil production (have) not stopped,” said Boschmann. “Once you open the door for companies to defer environmental monitoring, you close the door to ever holding them to account in the future.”
Wood Buffalo National Park, a federally protected UNESCO world heritage park upstream from the oil sands, is the traditional territory of the Mikisew Cree Nation. The park is key to Mikisew survival, said Chief Archie Waquan in an op-ed he wrote in April.
According to Waquan, companies that stop using remote monitoring equipment do not protect health. In fact, he said monitoring is critical to protecting people from accidents, particularly now that the workforce has had to shrink and operations changed in response to COVID-19.
AER said it is contacting Indigenous groups to explain the reasons behind its decision and to explore how to “better connect and keep everyone better informed as we move forward.”
Poitras said she hasn’t heard of anyone yet being contacted. “I want to know how the AER will work with First Nations to compensate us for what they’ve taken away with this decision,” she said.
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