Comparing water policy in northern Alberta and NWT


ACFN and MCFN youth on the Athabasca River.

ACFN and MCFN youth on the Athabasca River.

by Bruce McLean & Tim Heron

Northern Alberta and NWT share more than just a border on a map. Weather moves across the invisible line on the landscape, and water flows downstream from the Peace and Athasbasca Rivers to the Slave River and beyond. Bruce McLean and Tim Heron discuss differences in official water policies between Alberta and NWT.

Bruce McLean is a consultant for Mikisew Cree First Nation and the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in Fort Chipewyan, Alberta. He lives in Winnipeg, MB.

“From the First Nation perspective, we would say that Lower Athabasca Regional Plan [in Northern Alberta] is pretty flawed. Any protected area or any of that just fits in around existing water leases. The same for First Nations’ treaty rights. NWT has a government that is very pro-water. Very forward thinking in terms of managing for water quality and quantity. And I think that you’re going to see that butt heads with Alberta, who really have a mandate to develop the economic resources in the oil sands.”

“The government’s own scientists are showing impacts from the level of development in the region. Yet there doesn’t appear to be a process that then looks at how that will impact treaty rights.”

“First Nations have been advocating and trying to get off the ground a larger land use plan that gives Treaty Land Use Resource Management plans. And those would be based on the First Nations doing a lot more of the traditional knowledge work that needs to be done, and right now is only done when there’s a proposed project. So really they’re only focusing on areas that are then going to disappear shortly. So there’s no real holistic look at what’s going on.”

Tim Heron is the NWTMN Interim Measures Agreement (IMA) Coordinator, and also sits as the  Aboriginal Steering Committee Member, on the NWT Water Stewardship Strategy. He lives in Fort Smith, NWT.

“The whole NWT water strategy is about preserving the water for future generations. There is stuff in there for industry, but it’s not industry driven like the provinces are. The provinces, a lot of it is geared around economics.”

“That’s the biggest difference between both water policies. One is based on economics, one is based on the ability of future generations to have access to water and make their own decisions. If we take all the water from them now, they’ll never have an opportunity in 20 years from now. Any decision you make today you got to be thinking of 7 generations down the road.”

“Right now the territorial government [GNWT] is in trans-boundary negotiations with Alberta and BC. They’ve set the table. Now they’re talking about putting down the interests of the parties. In the NWT, the territorial government is asking all the regional governments, ‘What is your interest?’ They’re talking about quality, quantity, and seasonal rate of flow in negotiations. And also in the background they gotta keep in mind about the ecosystem.”

With the new water policy, and the new Navigable Waters Act changes… When you take a major river and take the protection away from it, but you protect the lake, what’s the use?” [ed. note: see the piece on Idle No More on page X for more information on changes to the federal Navigable Waters Act.]

“That “World Class Monitoring” [in Northern Alberta, based around monitoring impacts from the tar sands development on water] system is just a saying from the government of Alberta. That they’re going to be doing “world class monitoring.” Well they got no choice when it’s a world-class problem!”


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About Sheldon

Sheldon Birnie grew up in Dawson Creek, BC, and received a bachelor of environmental studies from the University of Manitoba in 2011. He lives in Winnipeg, MB, where he is a freelance writer, and the editor of the Manitoba Eco-Journal.
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