EDMONTON - The Alberta government has backtracked on proposals to change the way industry consults with aboriginals on development projects after significant opposition from First Nations.
"We know that there have been concerns raised and there will be some changes into what the draft policy will look like," said Kevin Zahara of Alberta Aboriginal Relations.
Before Christmas, the provincial government raised aboriginal hackles with a discussion paper on a new consultation approach.
Such talks are legally required based on Supreme Court judgments that found governments are constitutionally obliged to consult with aboriginals every time development occurs on their lands. What that means and how extensive such consultation must be has become a subject of constant debate, the nub of many court cases and a significant source of uncertainty for industry.
All sides have agreed that better ways to get everybody working together would reduce expensive and time-consuming court challenges.
Last fall, Alberta released a three-page discussion paper that suggested a single government office should set standards and determine how much consultation was required. It would also outline what kind of talks would be necessary for what kind of project.
The paper was roundly panned in subsequent meetings between Alberta chiefs and Aboriginal Relations Minister Robin Campbell. It also came up during economic development talks with Premier Alison Redford before Christmas.
The paper became so controversial the public comment period had to be extended about a month to Dec. 21.
Many chiefs said they wouldn't accept bureaucrats deciding when industry had done enough consultation — without any input from those being consulted.
Zahara said Campbell has agreed to come up with another proposal.
He added that it's too soon to tell how the Supreme Court's ruling Tuesday that Metis are "Indians" under the Constitution Act may affect the talks.
"The minister has talked with many of the chiefs on those concerns," he said. "There will be changes coming in terms of what the draft policy will look like."
Many aboriginal leaders want a voice at a much earlier stage in how resource projects, including forestry and energy developments, are designed and approved.
Carolyn Buffalo, director of operations for Treaty 6 First Nations, said she thinks aboriginals should be represented on the province's new energy regulatory board.
"I would like to see First Nations people appointed to that new board," she said. "We need to be part of the regulatory process."
Under current legislation, the new regulator wouldn't have to consider treaty rights when approving new projects, she said.
"That cuts us out of the regulatory process even further ... How are we supposed to trust the government when they introduce changes in legislation that affect us and they don't come and talk to us first?
"We're not just another lobby group."
Chief Alan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which is based near the oilsands, said industry needs to begin consulting at a much earlier stage.
"We're hoping to (get in on) the design even before they go into exploration, right up to leasing lands and everything," said Adam, whose band has initiated several court cases over consultation issues.
"Once the province leases out the land, you know (industry's) going right into exploration. We want to be right in the talks before that stage gets initiated."
Zahara said he can't give any details on what shape the new consultation proposal might take. Campbell has scheduled talks with aboriginal leaders over the coming weeks.
A new draft is expected this spring. Full implementation is planned by the end of the year.
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