EDMONTON - The Alberta government has run into a wall of opposition to its latest proposals on how to reform consultations with First Nations over development on their traditional lands.
Chiefs from 25 aboriginal bands from across the province expressed strong concerns in a meeting Monday with Aboriginal Relations Minister Robin Campbell about a discussion paper released this fall on consultation, which is legally required before any projects can proceed on such lands.
"It's quite clear the goal is to continue to minimize what it really means to consult with First Nations," said Grand Chief Marvin Yellowbird of Treaty 6 in central Alberta. "The province's current discussion paper approach is not meaningful."
Starting in 2004, the Supreme Court issued a series of judgments that found governments are obliged under the Constitution to consult with aboriginals every time development occurs on their lands. What that means and how extensive it must be has been a subject of constant debate, the nub of many court cases and a significant source of uncertainty for industry.
The chiefs told Campbell that Alberta's latest attempt to clarify and standardize consultation requirements doesn't cut it.
The three-page discussion paper suggests a single office would set standards and determine how much consultation was required. It would also produce a "matrix" outlining what would be necessary for what kind of project.
But the chiefs say it's not acceptable for government to determine appropriate levels of consultation on its own without input from those being consulted.
Worse, they say, the province's proposal reflects none of the numerous suggestions made over the years by First Nations.
"The government's not listening to us," said Yellowbird. "They've developed their policy and laid it before us."
The government should be asking for aboriginal input as proposals are being developed instead of presenting finished documents, said Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in northeastern Alberta.
"We've given good recommendations, but nothing was taken into consideration," he said. "It seems like the Alberta government just says, 'Sorry, but we don't need your legal advice. We have our own and you guys are going to have to accept what we have.'"
Kevin Zahara, Campbell's press secretary, emphasized the paper is only meant to start discussion.
"(First Nations) are part of that discussion," he said.
"They have not been presented with a policy. They have been presented with a discussion paper so we can create that policy."
After Monday's meeting, the comment period on the policy was extended from Nov. 30 through the end of December.
Adam suggested the current direction will lead to more legal challenges, not fewer.
"I'm tired of going to court," said Adam, whose band is already involved in a duty-to-consult case involving Shell Canada and its proposed Jackpine oilsands mine expansion.
Travis Davies of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers said his group is still studying the discussion paper, but is in favour of clarifying how consultations should work.
"We think it's positive the Alberta government is moving this forward."
Zahara said the government plans to release a draft policy in 2013 and have a final version in effect later in the year.