Voices of a generation: Our Land is Your Land...or Something

By Bethea Clarke on February 5, 2009

Our society’s frightening reliance on fossil fuels has been lamented ad nauseam.  Frankly, we are all tired of hearing about Alberta, and if one more granola-eating hipster drops the word “sustainable” into a sentence just for kicks... well

The fact is, though, that the problem is not only environmental, but social.  Do we ever consider where, exactly, the oil in Alberta comes from?  Do we assume that it is just barren land somewhere up north, unoccupied and disused? 

It isn’t.

In fact, a diverse population of First Nations live in northern Alberta, and they have had to negotiate endlessly to protect what is rightfully theirs.  The discovery of oil in the Turner Valley in 1914 dragged the First Nations into a custody battle over their traditional lands.

At the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth, petroleum was becoming more and more in demand.  Between 1909 and 1920 the consumption of petroleum and its products grew from $5 million to $83 million.  There were high hopes for Alberta.

The next big discovery was in Leduc in 1947.  After drilling 133 dry holes, Imperial Oil Limited struck oil on February 3, 1947, on a farm in Leduc, 20 miles south of Edmonton.  Other oil companies soon took interest in the area.  Among them were Suncor Energy Inc., which began operating along the Athabasca River in 1967, and Syncrude Canada Ltd., which began production in 1978.  

A crucial report was released in 1999 by the Albertan Energy and Utilities Board.  Data collected from 56,000 wells and 6,000 core samples showed that the amount of oil that could be extracted in Alberta totalled 175 billion barrels.  This was estimated to be enough to cover U.S. consumption for just over 50 years.

This was news of massive proportion.  Some people saw this as their salvation, while others feared this would merely act as a buffer to our impending environmental doom.  The people least surprised and, ultimately, most affected, were the First Nations.

The land in northern Alberta can be categorized in three main ways: it can be reserve land, which means that it is unquestionably set aside for the use of a particular band.  It can also be land which might be subject to a land treaty entitlement of some strength, or else it is unoccupied Crown land which means that the First Nations have no legal claim to the land but they do retain hunting and fishing rights. 

In order for the land to be developed by an oil company it must first be surrendered back to the Crown by referendum of the band.  Then the federal government enters negotiations with the oil companies and supervises the payment of royalties to the bands who surrendered their land.  Much of this is done by Indian Oil and Gas Canada.  The actual payment of royalties is handled by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.  This department has a reputation as being rather tight-fisted and the payments are often delayed for extensive periods of time.

This became such an issue that the Samson Cree Nation of Central Alberta went so far as to take the federal government to court on that issue in 2005.  It is an ongoing struggle but the judge finally ruled that the remaining royalty cash flow and funds should be managed by a trust fund set up by the Band and controlled by professionals.  Furthermore, the federal government set up the First Nations Oil and Gas Monies Management Act, which allows bands to access and control the funds themselves, after drafting their own extensive legislation and holding a referendum to accept control of the royalties.  

Ultimately, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Samson case on May 22, 2008.  It was estimated that a decision could be anticipated in six months, that would have been November.  This has been a landmark case, and the Samson Cree Nation’s hope is that the government will be held accountable for how it has treated the First Nations in that area in the past.

Or perhaps we will just keep relying on their oil.  We need it...don’t we?


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