Albertans challenge UCP coal plan changes during virtual town hall

Albertans across the province gathered online for a virtual townhall hosted by the NDP to discuss the UCP coal policy changes.

Concerned Citizens: A screenshot of Latasha Calf Robe, speaking to participants during the virtual town hall hosted by the Alberta NDP. Shannon Phillips, MLA for Lethbridge-West, organized the town hall and invited Albertans to discuss the proposed changes by the UCP to the 1976 coal policy. (Photo by Tsering Asha Leba/The Press)

First Nations members were joined by citizens, supporters and politicians at a virtual town hall on Thursday, Jan. 21 as part of the NDP’s fight against the UCP’s changes to the provincial coal policy.

Around late May, the Alberta government cancelled the 1976 Peter Lougheed era coal policy, which protected large portions of land, like the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, from being developed for strip mining.

After public backlash in December 2020, the UCP cancelled 11 pending leases for coal mining.

“This pause will provide our government with the opportunity to ensure that the interests of Albertans, as owners of mineral resources, are protected,” said Sonya Savage, Minister of Energy, in a Jan. 18 press release.

But participants at the town hall made it clear that they do not believe the government is looking out for their interests.

“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, a member of the Blood Tribe (Kainai Nation) and founder of the Niitsitapi Water Protectors, who spoke at the town hall.

“And all we’re really asking for is that we be granted that right and that right be respected for us to live our traditional ways for us to pass that on to our future generations.”

One of the main concerns for the Blood Tribe, and others, is the potential for toxic amounts of selenium to enter into the headwaters, contaminating the drinking water for communities along the Oldman River, which provides water to over 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 the Minister Responsible for the Climate Change Office. Phillips says at least 10 per cent of her constituents are members of one of the Blackfoot Nations of Siksika, Kainai and Piikani, all of which will be affected by these changes.

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

“We are already in a very water-stressed area made only worse by the effects of climate change, and already we see communities all across this corridor struggling with or even their water infrastructure,” said Phillips.

“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 rescission of the policy, set to begin on Jan. 26 at the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench.

The review includes ranchers and environmentalists, in addition to the Kainai and Piikani Nations, who are all arguing for the original 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.

In addition to Calf Robe and Phillips, the mayor of Lethbridge, Chris Spearman, and the former premier and Leader of the opposition, Rachel Notley, both spoke out against the rescission of the coal policy.