Grassy Mountain Coal & First Nations: Who Gets to Decide?

Grassy Mountain Coal & First Nations: Who Gets to Decide?

grassy mountain coal mines first nations who gets to decide

Coal Passing Through the Canadian Rockies

Canadians are so fortunate to have so many different kinds of natural resources in our backyard. But which ones do we develop, and who gets to decide who develops them?

We are environmental leaders in Canada since we develop our resources responsibly, and we have so many concerned citizens who monitor that development across the country. However, the decision to put Coalspur’s proposed Vista mine expansion in Western Alberta through a federal environmental assessment that the project would be unlikely to pass seems biased without any attempt to find a middle ground.

With the increased pressure for environmental accountability and the mindset of “not in my backyard,” not all Indigenous voices were heard regarding the Grassy Mountain coal mine expansion. Rather, the only Indigenous voices that were heard were the ones whose perspectives fit into the coal policy that federal environment minister Andrew Wilkinson brought forward.

Ermineskin Cree Nation Said “Yes”

Who was consulted in the decision made? What happened to the duty to consult and the principles of UNDRIP?

Carol Wildcat, Consultation Director of Industrial Relations for Ermineskin Cree Nation, is responsible for negotiating impact benefit agreements with natural resource companies looking to operate within her nation’s traditional territory in west-central Alberta. She and her Nation approved the proposed coal mine expansion and had already signed Impact and Benefit Agreements (IBAs) with Coalspur.

But despite approving the project based on the process outlined in 2019, Minister Wilkinson changed his mind, stating, “…the coal development project may result in adverse effects of greater magnitude than previously considered, including fish and wildlife habitat species of risk and Indigenous people.”

Of course, those concerns were researched and considered by Ermineskin. And in their consideration, they decided the positive economic and social impacts outweighed the environmental ones.

indigenous communities Canadian mining sector contracts since 2000

Ermineskin then went to court with Wilkinson for his failure to consult the nation before making his decision, and they won! Federal judge Henry Brown quashed Wilkinson’s order, saying Ermineskin had been inexplicably frozen out from a one-sided process. Such a precedent means that the federal government should now think twice before stopping projects without considering the loss of positive economic impacts for affected Indigenous Peoples.

David Khan, an Eco Justice lawyer based out of Calgary, even agreed that there was an error in not consulting the Ermineskin. He suggested the process restart and submissions be considered from all sides before moving forward once again.

In a similar case, Wilkinson has blocked the Benga Mining Grassy Mountain coal project by saying that it is likely to cause significant environmental effects.

The Piikani and Stoney Nakoda Nations are arguing the joint review panel failed to properly consult them also. Sound familiar?

They are appealing the decision against the Grassy Mountain Coal Mine near Crowsnest Pass in southwestern Alberta.

A Lost Opportunity for First Nations

Indigenous employment mining sector Canada

Many people are opposed to coal as it emits a lot of greenhouse gases when used to generate energy (thermal) or in other industrial processes (metallurgical). But the fact is that we all need steel, and will need heaps more of it to transform our global energy infrastructure in the low carbon transition that lay ahead.

And we also need increasing amounts of energy. For example, in some parts of the world like China, the population overwhelmingly relies on thermal coal-fired power generation for most of its electricity. And there seems to be no slowdown in the construction of these mega power plants on the horizon – in China, India, and several other parts of the developing world.

Canadian coal exports are mostly going to Asia through Ports in Vancouver and elsewhere on B.C.’s coast. So the question remains: who will buyers across the Pacific get their coal from if they can’t source it from responsible producers in Canada?!

If the Ermineskin, Piikani and Stoney Nakoda Nations, aren’t the ones mining and exporting the coal that the world still needs, then who is?

Right to Self-Economic Determination

Canadian courts have looked at how resource development has impacted Indigenous communities and their traditional way of life in the past. But now, judges will have to look at how regulations will affect First Nations’ right to self-economic determination.

Unfortunately, there are so many existing regulations for Indigenous Peoples on Indigenous lands in Canada that they have to be creative when trying to improve their economy and livelihood within their communities. Indigenous Peoples can still live their traditional way of life through developing their natural resources responsibly, but unfortunately still need approval from the federal government.

Undermining the process outlined by Bill-C15 and UNDRIP is not acceptable. The courts are finally realizing that by protecting Indigenous communities’ right to say yes to economic development within their respective territories.

About the Author

Estella Petersen - Heavy Equipment Operator & Indigenous Woman in the Oil Sands

Estella Petersen is a heavy machinery operator in the oil sands out of Fort McMurray. Estella is from the Cowessess Reserve and is passionate about Canada and supporting Canadian natural resources.