Alberta and regulator criticized as Kearl hearing begins in Ottawa

A still of the Kearl Lake facility from a video shared by Imperial Oil
A still of the Kearl Lake facility from a video shared by Imperial Oil.

Northern Alberta First Nations and Métis communities have slammed an Alberta regulator and the province at a House of Commons committee on environment and sustainable development.

Monday’s hearing in Ottawa was called following multiple leaks at Imperial Oil’s Kearl oil sands mine, north of Fort McMurray. The company wasn’t spared criticism at the hearing, but Kearl was described as just the latest example of a system that is not working.

“All trust with the Alberta government has been broken. It has been broken for a long time. It is clear that they cannot be trusted to oversee this mess. This mess has been going on since the 1960s,” said Chief Allan Adam of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation.

Adam, who flew to Ottawa to present in person, called out the committee chair – Liberal Montreal MP Francis Scarpaleggia – for attempting to limit presentations to five minutes. Adam threatened to walk out if not given the time he needed, then spoke for almost 20 minutes.



In March, the committee made a motion to study leaks at Kearl that came to public attention after the Alberta Energy Regulator, or AER, issued an environmental protection order on February 6. It later became apparent that Imperial had been having issues with containment since May 2022, and had reported those issues to the AER at the time, but never contacted Indigenous communities downstream about the leaks.

“The Kearl crisis shows these failures on multiple fronts, and we fear that Kearl is just the tip of the iceberg. We are bracing for even more catastrophic events unless there are real reforms,” said Mikisew Cree First Nation Chief Billie-Joe Tuccaro, who spoke virtually.

Lack of communication by both Imperial and the AER has further eroded trust and shows the AER has put industry before people, said Daniel Stuckless, director for the Fort McKay Métis Nation.

He said federal approvals come with “hundreds of conditions” that must be met, while the AER limits such restrictions.



“Nothing changes. It is cookie-cutter day in, day out … type of approvals,” said Stuckless, who also spoke virtually.

“The regulator is constantly pulling the direction of the conversation in the interests of the regulated parties rather than the public interest,” said Timothy Clark, principal of environmental consultancy at Willow Springs Strategic Solutions, which is working with the Fort McMurray Métis Nation.

The only way to address the AER’s failings, said Stuckless, is to “scrap it and build it back.”

But recommendations to correct the system went beyond replacing the AER.

“Canada must also shoulder the responsibility of what is happening,” said Adam, who added that Canada was not fulfilling its obligations under federal legislation like the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

“We can point to the lack of enforcement, lack of funding, lack of political will, but these are excuses and not solutions,” said Adam.

He called on the federal government to undertake a comprehensive audit of the structural integrity of tailings and pipeline infrastructure across the entire oil sands region.

Clark added that the duty to consult had been downgraded from the federal Crown to the provinces to industry, who in turn contract third parties to do that work.



“The psychological effects of feeling like you don’t matter, your voice isn’t heard, that’s a pretty clear indication to me of where the priority on Indigenous rights and Indigenous people rests in this process,” he said.

Both Adam and Tuccaro called for full assessments of the cumulative impact industry is having on the environment in their region, as well as the impact on their Section 35 treaty and inherent rights.

Tuccaro said his people were “asking for certainty” about their health and their ability to practise their traditions and culture.

“Certainty about the way our land will look and function in the future,” he said. “Certainty that we will be able to continue our way of life on the land, that our rights be protected as promised to us in 1899.”

Scarpaleggia said questions and concerns raised by Indigenous representatives will be taken to Imperial Oil when the company appears in front of the same committee on Thursday.