What do many First Nations, ranchers, hunters, fishers, environmentalists, mayors, and country singers have in common?
The answer, in Alberta, is coal.
Widespread concern is building over a variety of issues the province may now be facing under the rescission of the 1976 Coal Policy by the United Conservative Party provincial government, taking effect on June 1 of last year, and opening up large swaths of the Rocky Mountains to open-pit coal mining.
The policy, which was created by the Lougheed government after years of research and public consultation, previously protected environmentally sensitive category 2 lands in the eastern slopes of the Rockies, areas which are also important to First Nations people and home to the headwaters of both the Oldman and Red Deer Rivers.
The Oldman River provides over 200,000 Albertans with safe drinking water, including the Blood Tribe (Kainai Nation). However, toxic amounts of selenium now threaten to enter these waters by way of the proposed coal projects.
Latasha Calf Robe, a member of the Blood Tribe, says the UCP made an unlawful decision to revoke the policy without consultation with First Nations.
“The Alberta government has a duty, a legal duty to consult, that is protected under Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution Act. So, the highest governing law in Canada has a duty to consult with First Nations on any matter that may have adverse impacts on their treaty rights or Aboriginal rights,” she said.
“The rescinding of this coal policy, will have, and is already having impacts on our rights as First Nations people. And so, the duty to consult was owed, and was actively ignored by the UCP government.”
Calf Robe spent her upbringing immersed in Blackfoot culture, living on a reserve, swimming in the Oldman River, practicing traditional ways of life, and hearing stories of the land and creation from both her grandmothers.
“I fear the impacts on our future generations, and that this may unfortunately lead to the demise of our Blackfoot way of life,” said Calf Robe.
“The rescinding of policies such as this is what modern day cultural genocide looks like.”
The Kainai and Siksika First Nations are filing a joint application for judicial review to be heard in the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench.
Joining the ranks of other intervenors are the Ermineskin and Whitefish Lake First Nations, ranchers with the Livingstone Landowners Group, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, who are all filing separate requests.
In response to all of the recent coal projects, mainly Grassy Mountain, Calf Robe founded the Niitsitapi Water Protectors, a small collaborative of land and water defenders from within the Blackfoot confederacy, moved to take action to protect their traditional lands and territory.
“It’s kind of on all fronts,” she said. “We’re trying to take action on two very large, complicated issues.”
In an effort to give more Indigenous people a voice on the issue, the group created a postcard campaign where people can fill out their information online and a postcard is then completed and sent on their behalf to federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson, urging him to reject the Grassy Mountain coal project.
“Just getting that Indigenous voice out there, with a really clear message, that these projects will infringe on First Nations treaty rights, no community level consultation was done. And you know, these projects pose major threats to the health and livelihood of all people in Treaty 7,” said Calf Robe.
On Jan. 21, Calf Robe was among other panelists invited to speak about changes to the coal policy at a virtual town hall organized by NDP Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips, former provincial minister of Environment and Parks and minister responsible for Climate Change.
The rescinding of policies such as this is what modern day cultural genocide looks like. – Latasha Calf Robe
Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley, also made a surprise appearance at the event, touching on many of the concerns being voiced throughout the evening.
“Albertans have overwhelmingly said that the eastern slopes should be devoted to watershed protection, recreation, and tourism,” she said. “And of course, the land should be respected for the way it has interacted with Aboriginal peoples for so many years before anybody else was here.”
On Jan. 11, in response to thousands of people vocally opposing the UCP’s decision to revoke the policy, Minister of Energy Sonya Savage announced that they would cancel 11 recently issued coal leases.
This, however, only makes up for less than half of one per cent of the 420,000 hectares already under existing leases.
“What is great though, is that nobody’s been fooled by it,” said Notley.
“It’s as if Jason Nixon and Jason Kenney stepped on a hornet’s nest, and that hornet’s nest is southern Albertans who care deeply – from all walks of life – about the integrity of the environment, and the integrity of the eastern slopes.”