All of Canada’s oil sands production takes place on traditional Aboriginal and treaty lands.
This raises important questions about the nature of treaty rights, and the obligation of the government and the oil sands industry to consult Aboriginal groups as they endeavor to sustainably develop one of Canada’s most valuable resources.
To help answer some of these questions, we’ve compiled a list of five things you should know about treaty rights, consultation and oil sands development.
1. Canada has a long history of treaty making
Over 70 historic treaties were signed between 1701 and 1923. They cover approximately 50 per cent of Canada (PDF). In 1973, the federal government developed a policy for negotiating modern treaties. Since then, another 20+ treaties have been settled. These treaties cover an additional 40 per cent of the country (PDF). There are still parts of the country where no treaties have ever been signed.
2. The interpretation of treaties is not agreed upon
Treaties, which are formal agreements between nations, were negotiated between representatives of the Crown and Aboriginal groups. The earliest treaties focused on military alliances and peace. Later, the Crown’s focus became to obtain the right to land and ownership in exchange for treaty rights. Many Aboriginal peoples hold that these land treaties are in fact agreements for peaceful co-existence between sovereign nations and not surrender of title.
3. Aboriginal people in Canada have unique and constitutionally protected rights
The Constitution of Canada recognizes and affirms two sets of protected rights: Aboriginal rights and treaty rights. The Aboriginal peoples of Canada are First Nations, Inuit and Metis.
Aboriginal rights are those designed to uphold historical traditions. Treaty rights, on the other hand, are those rights specifically outlined in historic and modern treaties. Aboriginal rights and treaty rights may overlap or complement each other.
4. There is a legal requirement to consult Aboriginal groups when development may impact Aboriginal or treaty rights
The Supreme Court of Canada in a number of cases has determined that the Crown must consult with Aboriginal groups when development may infringe Aboriginal or treaty rights. This is known as the ‘duty to consult’. In modern treaties, the process for consultation is outlined within the agreement.
Under the ‘duty to consult’, governments making decisions that may impact Aboriginal rights or treaty rights have a responsibility to consult potentially affected Aboriginal communities. The Crown must then ensure that adequate consultation has taken place.
Industry’s role in this process is to confirm that project information has been provided and that received feedback has been appropriately integrated into project design where possible. To do this successfully, industry and Aboriginal communities develop critical relationships that are key to ensuring adequate consultation and sustainable resource development. Suncor’s interaction with Aboriginal communities is guided by our Aboriginal Relations policy (PDF).
5. Industry recognizes opportunities to work with Aboriginal groups
Proceeding with development requires close collaboration and long-term thinking, such as improving relationships and inclusion through employment and business opportunities. For example, since 1991, Suncor has spent more than $2 billion on goods and services provided by Aboriginal businesses.
How industry and Aboriginal groups work together is constantly evolving. Doug Eyford, the prime minister’s special envoy on West Coast energy infrastructure, recently made recommendations on how governments and industry can better work with Aboriginal people (PDF) to create mutual benefit beyond regulatory requirements, such as improved social and economic opportunities.
Building trust and advancing reconciliation are important factors to improving relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Crown. Oil sands producers, like Suncor, recognize the value of strong relationships with Aboriginal peoples, which is why we continue to evaluate and improve our approaches to these complex and important issues.