The Alberta and federal governments are reported to have signed an agreement making significant cuts to environmental monitoring of the province’s oilsands.
The Canadian Press, quoting an unpublished document, said the drop in funding equates to a 25-percent year-on-year reduction and does not fund water monitoring downstream of the oilsands.
Federal environment minister Jonathan Wilkinson disputed the report, stating via Twitter: “There is no Canada-Alberta agreement to reduce oilsands monitoring.”
Wilkinson instead attributed the decrease in spending to the lost spring and summer field season as a result of Covid-19. The minister said the decrease was “decided upon by consensus of a 12-person body,” including six Indigenous representatives, though he gave no further detail.
Nonetheless, news of reduced funding surprised Chief Gerry Cheezie of the Smith’s Landing First Nation, which has expressed concern about water quality upstream of the Slave River.
“I was completely taken aback by this story when I first heard it this morning,” Cheezie said on Tuesday.
“We’ve gone on record in opposition to the environmental pollution that’s coming out of the oilsands projects and the lack of federal and provincial response to it to protect the environment, to protect the health and safety of our people.”
Joslyn Oosenbrug, a spokesperson for the NWT’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources (ENR), said the news of an agreement to reduce monitoring had not been shared with the territorial government.
“The GNWT has only very recently been made aware that no water quality monitoring on the Athabasca mainstem was contemplated in [the federal-Alberta agreement] for this year,” Oosenbrug said.
She said the territory understands the province and the federal government are in discussions to resume monitoring at two water quality sites on the Athabasca River, “possibly as early as this month.”
Oosenbrug said monitoring sites upstream of the Slave River are designed to serve as early detection points for concerns that could cause issues in the NWT.
“The GNWT continues to advocate for all water monitoring to resume in Alberta,” she said, adding environment minister Shane Thompson had expressed “concern” to his Alberta and federal counterparts.
Cheezie said the monitoring changes go against the Liberal government’s commitment to prioritize climate change.
Smith’s Landing First Nation was part of a group that in June formally opposed monitoring reductions initially made as a response to concerns about Covid-19.
“We’re not going to be silent. We’re going to put forth our concerns and work toward changing this prevailing attitude in Alberta, especially, that oilsands are a good thing,” Cheezie said.
“It flies in the face of the whole idea of consultation … We want to be included in the decision-making, especially when it affects our lives.”
Oosenbrug said the NWT carries out its own monitoring within the territory, while conceding Alberta’s monitoring is “an important part of our early warning system.”
She said the territory’s own work had so far not shown “any notable changes to water quality in the NWT.”
Smith’s Landing plans own monitoring
In May, Chief Archie Waquan of the Mikisew Cree First Nation wrote that a reduction in monitoring had the potential to further jeopardize the already declining health of Wood Buffalo Nation Park, considered an at-risk world heritage site by the United Nations.
Waquan dismissed concern about Covid-19 as a reason for reductions in monitoring.
“Halting the use of remote monitoring equipment doesn’t protect health,” he wrote, “and monitoring is even more critical to protecting human health when companies reduce personnel and alter operations at facilities in response to the Covid-19 crisis, increasing the potential for incidents.
“If the underlying intention is to limit non-essential travel in our region (a concern we share), why not hire locally, creating a win for employment and the environment?”
Last year, the federal government passed the Impact Assessment Act – legislation that includes guidance on inclusion of Indigenous knowledge in environment assessments.
Federal guidelines accompanying the act state that “including Indigenous knowledge in assessment processes needs to be based on a foundation of respect for the worldview of Indigenous peoples.”
Cheezie said the Smith’s Landing First Nation is now considering its own monitoring of air and water.
“We’ve been doing work in this area and it’s been brought to our attention that air pollution from the oilsands stacks is also affecting our territory. It’s casting a wider net than just water,” he said.
“Every time we have a conversation with government agencies or departments or politicians, we have to prove everything we say. On the other hand, they don’t have to prove anything to us. But we’re going to have our own data here that eventually we can point to.
“Alberta’s strategy is no monitoring, no pollution – and that’s a stupid idea. It doesn’t fool anybody.”