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Energy & the Oilsands
ABORIGINAL PERSPECTIVES CONFERENCE: GAINING A MORE BALANCED UNDERSTANDING OF THE ISSUES AND OPPORTUNITIES IN THIS REGION
Chief Boucher has 23 years in leadership and was first elected in Fort McKay First Nation in 1986. He is a storyteller, and a wise and well-rounded man. “Every great story has three main components: a beginning, middle and end. This story starts with a conversation between GP Gladu and myself in Calgary. We decided we wanted to work together and create something different,” says Chief Jim Boucher. He is referring to brainstorming for the Energy and the Oilsands – Aboriginal Perspectives conference held in January in Wood Buffalo, hosted by the Fort McKay First Nation and the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. It was the first event of its kind in Canada, perhaps in the whole world.
THE EVENT DREW 400 attendees including representation from the five local First Nations Peoples, Métis and leaders from industry and government. The topics discussed by panelists included the current state of affairs in relation to industry and the environment, Treaty Rights, past and present legal challenges, and the need to focus on consultations while navigating the future of resource development in this region. The words ‘planetary stewardship’ are still on mind. “We felt it was necessary to make the meaningful conversations happening with all involved parties and make them available to a broader audience,” says Chief Boucher.
“It was one of the better conferences I have attended. The theme was about importance of dialogue and about setting a cooperative frame of references for industry leaders and Aboriginal People, and perhaps to clarify that First Nations locally are pro development, but not at any cost.” says Todd Belot, who sits on the Executive Committee for the Circle for Aboriginal Relations (CFAR). The organization provides its members a network to assist in improving understanding of different perspectives. Understanding the Aboriginal Peoples perspective on industry development cannot be achieved by attending one conference. However it is a good place to start. The purpose of writing this article is to share just some of what I learned through participating and talking with those involved.
“Every big meeting starts with a blessing by an Elder in our culture. That’s a tradition,” says Marie Adams an Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Elder. She is one of 24 Treaty 8 Elders in Alberta and she has been part of this community for over 30 years. Some of her children and grandchildren still live here. I introduced myself to her after hearing her share the Native American Prayer at the conference. I called her afterwards to ask about the blessing and she invited me to pick up a copy at her home.
We sit down and chat about our lives in Fort McMurray over some bannock – a delicious traditional bread. She paints a picture that growing up living life along the trap lines in Western Canada was a much simpler time. I notice a photo in her living room, a picture of her with David Suzuki. When I inquire, “Oh that,” she says, “Well he heard I was part of the ‘Keepers of the Water’ group. When David Suzuki calls you up you don’t say no,” she jokes. She claims that she is neither an activist nor a protester; she believes she is just someone who cares. “You can’t be angry with industry in this area, it has built this community, it created the livelihood for the people who live here and jobs to put food on the tables of families here, but that does not mean you don’t pay attention to the impact of the work that is done, the impact development has on everything else,” she says.
If you haven’t experienced Aboriginal drumming live, you should seek out the cultural exposure. The emotions that the drumming stirs up cannot be accurately described. I was reminded of this while hearing the Fort McKay drummers at the conference. Marie is kind enough to explain the significance of the drums. “The symbolism is related to the shape, the circle it represents all of the livings things, the people, plants and animals, the circle of life. It has no beginning and no end. Everything from how the drum is made using parts from nature, to the beat of the drum, which is like a pulse of Mother Earth - reflects the continuation of life through generations as it strives to exists in harmony with everything else, together in peace,” she says.
“Chief Boucher gave a compelling talk at the Gala dinner – he was telling a story – it’s not something I am used to seeing,” says Belot. In addition to his work with CFAR he is also a Senior Aboriginal Advisor for an energy company based out of Calgary. He is often in the area for community consultations with local First Nations Peoples. I agree with this view. Chief Boucher spoke from the heart and touched those in attendance on a deeper level. I believe the Chief sees the bigger picture and understand all sides of the issues. In addition to being an elected leader he has also served as Chairman of the Board for the Fort McKay Group of Companies, and under his leadership the 8 limited partnerships that make up the FMGC has grown to be one of the most successful First Nations owned business ventures in Canada. Under Chief Boucher’s leadership the company generates revenues in excess of $10- million annually.
Both elder Marie Adams and Chief Boucher are survivors of residential schools. For those who may not know, in our recent Canadian history, Aboriginal Peoples had their youth taken from their family homes and communities to church and government run boarding schools designed to strip heritage and culture from students. Chief Boucher shared at age 12, he wasn’t sure what he did wrong to be taken away from home. He didn’t share a tale of anger or resentment for his lived experiences in residential schools. “My grandfather told me later after I returned, to settle down, to not be angry, that life is a gift, be positive and thankful, just always remember you need it all the good and the bad to live fully,” he recalls.
The conference really reinforced for me personally that living in Fort McMurray today makes me a small part of history in the making. This story doesn’t end the day the conference concluded. The discussions that have been spurred during the event and that continue into the future will tell the tale. As a number of conference panelists said, “If the Aboriginal People locally can’t green the oil sands, certainly no one else can.” A video is being produced on this conference and should be available in the near future. Continue to check the Fort McKay First Nations website to view the documentary. A special thanks to Frederick R. McDonald, Director of Events & Museum Development at Fort McKay First Nation for inviting me to join the conference planning committee as a volunteer and for helping me to share this story.
Gaining a better understanding
The Aboriginal Peoples in Wood Buffalo today include representation from the Mikisew Cree First Nation, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McKay First Nation, Fort McMurray First Nation, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation, and Métis.
These communities originate from three main groups, the Dene People, Cree People, and Métis People. The traditional way of life for Aboriginal Peoples revolved around hunting, fishing and gathering plants, berries, medicines and other raw materials from nature.
Knowledge and traditions have been passed down between generations orally, including storytelling and the passing down of legends, and through cultural traditions such as drumming, crafting and sacred ceremonies and rituals.