Concerns expressed by some Fort Chipewyan residents over oil sands production have received quite a bit of attention in the media in the last two years.
You might conclude that oil sands development has been unfailingly negative for all the First Nations and Metis peoples living in the Wood Buffalo region, and that it is universally rejected by them.
Without presuming to speak on behalf of these communities, this OSQAR edition puts forth another perspective – one that reflects these communities’ desire to achieve a sustainable future.
Like many societies these days, the Wood Buffalo Aboriginal communities are struggling with how best to share in the benefits of an energy, carbon-based economy without sacrificing their culture, which includes very strong ties to the land. They want to build strong, independent local economies. They want to ensure their children and their grandchildren have opportunities for education and employment. And they want to do it on their own terms, and building consensus within their communities isn’t always easy.
Take the Fort McKay First Nation, for example. This community, which is nearly in the centre of oil sands development, has acknowledged that their traditional economy and way of life, based on hunting, fishing and trapping, will not sustain them into the future. They realize the benefits oil sands development in terms of employment, skills training and economic development. The six companies comprising Fort McKay Group, which is wholly owned and controlled by Fort McKay First Nation, bring in annually over $100 million in revenue.
As Fort McKay’s Chief Jim Boucher put it, “The world needs oil and this place called the Athabasca tar sands certainly has plenty of it and provides the opportunity for our community for the next 250 years to participate in the economy that’s world class.” The full interview with Chief Boucher is here.
Fort McKay is not alone. First Nation communities in the oil sands region in Alberta have prospered directly and indirectly from oil sands along with the rest of the province. Between 1998 and 2009, Aboriginal companies earned more than $3.7 billion on work for oil sands operators while some 1,600 Aboriginals had permanent jobs in the oil sands industry as of 2009. (Suncor alone accounted for over $1 billion of these contracts between 1992 and 2008.) More detail about Aboriginal peoples and oil sands development in the Wood Buffalo Region can be found in this fact sheet (PDF).
Fort McKay’s goal to create a sustainable local economy, while keeping a watchful eye on the environment, has been a driving factor in the Fort McKay Business Incubator, an integrated one-stop centre for entrepreneurs to develop business ideas with help from experienced professionals.
Syncrude has given $5 million to Keyano College and the creation of the Syncrude Aboriginal Pre-Trades Program. Meanwhile, Suncor has helped improve healthcare in Fort McKay and Fort Chipewyan through a telehealth project.
Aboriginal issues with oil sands development need to be taken very seriously. The path to success lies in collaborative discussions and partnerships, which span the range of economic, environmental, social and traditional knowledge consideration. Please see the Suncor Aboriginal Affairs Policy.