Gordon Jaremko The Edmonton Journal


Monday, July 10, 2006




Alberta has not heard the last of an emerging aboriginal claim, made at northern pipeline hearings in High Level, to an enlarged native role in resource industries.


Enter "livelihood rights," a doctrine developed to give practical modern meaning to century-old Indian treaties.


Resistance by the Dene Tha' in the High Level region against the Alberta leg in the $7.5-billion Mackenzie gas project is only the first attempt at using the new approach to try changing a development, said Jim Webb, a policy adviser to northern native communities.


Livelihood rights are cornerstones of 1980s and '90s aboriginal treaties in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Arctic "comprehensive land claims settlements" are built on native resource ownership, development partnerships, endowment funds or revenue shares for acquiring business assets and roles in supervising resource projects through regional regulatory agencies.


"This process is very difficult in Alberta," Webb said, in explaining Dene Tha' appeals for northern-style help to the natural gas megaproject's environmental joint review panel, the National Energy Board and the Federal Court of Canada.


The national agencies have so far refused to pick a fight with Alberta by intervening. The decision on the Arctic pipeline's Alberta leg is being left up to the Alberta Energy and Utilities Board. A Dene Tha' lawsuit is still only in early stages in the federal court.


Provincial authorities know all about the attempt to import the northern version of aboriginal rights.The Alberta government has observer status in three-year-old negotiations between the federal government and the province's native communities on translating old Indian treaties into modern agreements akin to the Arctic claims settlements.


A provincial policy describes processes for adapting the northern approach to Alberta conditions, including integrated land use plans and "regional management forums" of government, industry and aboriginal representatives.


But the apparatus only exists on paper, Webb said.


An early attempt to put the theory into practice in the Fort McMurray region ended when the province withdrew from the exercise rather than let it develop a controlling role in oilsands development, he said.


The status quo, however, is spawning increasingly acrimonious regulatory and legal duels over modern meanings to be read into the old Indian treaties.


The original pacts did not spell out the livelihood rights idea, which is that Canada owes its original inhabitants the means to make new livings in exchange for taking away all their territories except for small reservations.


Instead, the old treaties spoke of allowing aboriginal breadwinners to keep supporting their families in traditional ways, typically described as their "usual vocations of hunting, trapping and fishing."


Treaty provisions known as "ammunition and twine" promised help obtaining hunting and trapping gear.


Other sections, known as "cows and plows," pledged fertile land and farm implements to natives who agreed to settle down and try agriculture.


Letters by federal officials, and positions they adopted in 1920s and '30s negotiations with the provinces, show Ottawa interpreted the old treaty clauses as creating a duty to assure the means for building new aboriginal livelihoods would be available.


The record, for instance, documents attempts to set aside 35,000-square-kilometre hunting preserves exclusively for aboriginal communities. The attempts failed. The provinces defended expansion by non-native settlers, hunters and industrialists.


In the Dene Tha' region of northwestern Alberta, northeastern British Columbia and the southern Northwest Territories, the old ways survived by default into the 1950s.


The High Level pipeline hearings were studded with reminders that memories of the old nomadic hunting ways are still fresh and fond.


They also stand out as popular symbols of the economic independence that aboriginal leaders hope to recover by interpreting the old treaties to include livelihood rights.


The heritage is reinforced by locally celebrated traditionalists who keep on using traplines, and pass on bush skills to community youth in a spreading back-to-the-land movement.


In appealing to the northern pipeline environmental review panel for help to control industrial sprawl, native leaders described oil and gas activity as a passing phase compared to passionate aboriginal commitment to keep on living on ancestral lands.


"I'm willing to spend time in prison -- or pay big fines, or take whatever you can throw at me -- in order to protect that area," said Sid Chambaud, a 33-year-old Dene Tha' who is reviving an ancestral trapline. "My land is very important to me."


Jerry Pastion, a 48-year-old trapper, asked what mainstream Alberta society plans to do if it does not grant livelihood rights. "After the moose and caribou are gone, are you going to feed us pork chops and chicken -- every day, forever?"


Pastion also gave visiting industry and government officials a joking but pointed reminder that gas development is up close and personal for communities where pipelines, drilling and production happen. He promised to resist temptation to return the favour by setting up a construction camp and carving out access roads or rights-of-way in downtown Calgary if its captains of industry treat northern aboriginal communities with respect.