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First Nations shut out of oilsands

Six aboriginal groups near Alberta's oilsands are wondering where they can voice their concerns about growing development after the government said they shouldn't be heard at a precedent-setting review of the province's environmental plans for the area.

Alberta has told a panel conducting a review of the Lower Athabasca Regional Plan that the bands aren't directly harmed by it. The government also says the panel can't hear concerns about treaty rights.

"The majority of concerns raised by the applicant are not related to the content of (the plan) and are therefore outside the panel's jurisdiction and so must not be considered," say government arguments presented to the panel.

The bands say similar arguments have been used to shut them out of public hearings on individual energy projects held by both the provincial government and its industry regulator.

They wonder just where they're supposed to turn.

"When the nation raises cumulative impacts on treaty rights in relation to individual projects, it is told that LARP is the appropriate place to have these concerns addressed," said Melissa Daniels, lawyer for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation. "Now Alberta is arguing that it is inappropriate to raise these concerns with the panel specifically designed to review LARP.

"If this isn't in bad faith, I don't know what is."

Announced in 2012, the LARP was the government's third try at balancing environmental protection and economic development in a region increasingly key to the entire Canadian economy. Aboriginal groups immediately denounced it and promised to use a review process provided in Alberta's Land Stewardship Act to try to get it revamped.

But in documents submitted to the review panel, the government says the aboriginal complaints are beyond the panel's powers. It adds that none of those groups, whose reserves are all in the area, is "directly and adversely" affected by the plan.

The three-member panel is now reviewing hundreds of pages of documents from the bands and the province. It's the first time this type of panel has been convened.

The Athabasca Chipewyan, Fort McKay, Onion Lake, Cold Lake Cree, Mikisew Cree, Chipewyan Prairie Dene and Fort McKay Metis all maintain that their input was either not sought or ignored. They say the plan lacks benchmarks to measure impacts on traditional uses, prioritizes energy development over everything and puts aboriginal land use on the same level as snowmobilers and campers.

Alberta argues aboriginals will be consulted on frameworks within the plan dealing specifically with everything from biodiversity to air and water quality. But two years after LARP was introduced, few of those frameworks have been developed and one environmental group estimates that only 30 per cent of the plan actually exists.

The Canadian Press

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