Members of a First Nation in northern Alberta are occupying an access road to an oil lease site on their territory where a company intends to horizontally drill using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, without their consent.The traditional chief and council of Lubicon Lake Cree Nation along with approximately 20 members began peacefully blockading an access road to a Penn West Petroleum Ltd. site on Tuesday after they discovered the company bringing equipment and workers into the area without notice.
Chief Bernard Ominayak said the Lubicon Nation requires industry to obtain free, prior and informed consent prior to developing on their territory, which has not happened. Instead, members were notified by the arrival of the company on their territory.
A group from the Lubicon Nation visited the Penn West jobsite on November 18 to inquire about the presence of equipment and personnel on location. According to Lubicon councillor Dwight Gladue, Penn West initially agreed to halt the work and meet with the First Nation on November 20. The following day, the company called to cancel the meeting and re-started operations.
Lubicon leaders then passed a council resolution and order indicating that Penn West was trespassing on Lubicon Land and had to vacate immediately.
The decision to block the road was made after Penn West representatives met with Lubicon chief, council, elders and citizens on November 25, but refused to cease their operations.
“The government of the Lubicon Lake Nation is enforcing these laws as they would any other and expect the RCMP to join them to do the same,” stated a press release from the Lubicon. “Penn West has been repeatedly informed by the nation that no foreign government, including any Canadian endorsed, illegal, Indian Act formed government, will represent the Lubicon Lake Nation with regards to their lands.”
Ominayak said the Lubicon Nation has never ceded its lands nor signed a treaty with the Crown, and therefore remains sole title holder to its land and resources.
Gladue said the community is concerned about the impacts of fracking on their water. The Penn West site sits near two bodies of water, Haig Lake and Sawn Lake, which are the community’s main source of fish.
RCMP, government give order to vacate
Members of the Peace River RCMP detachment visited the blockade site three times on Wednesday, once with Richard Goy from Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (ESRD), who delivered an order to remove protesters from the road under the Public Lands Act.
The last time occurred in the evening, when Gladue said officers showed up wanting to see if the blockaders “were happy.”
Three RCMP vehicles returned to the site on Thursday afternoon, taking photos of protesters and their license plate numbers before leaving.
As of Friday afternoon, police or government officials had yet to return to the site or make any arrests.
A letter sent Wednesday to the provincial government from Lubicon’s legal counsel argued that no order could be made using the Public Lands Act because the First Nation has filed a statement of claim on the land dispute, putting it currently before the courts.
The letter also referred to the Lubicon’s Charter rights to peacefully assemble within their territory.
‘Recognized’ chief and council condemn blockade
The blockade has highlighted division within the Lubicon nation.
The federally-recognized chief and council established through the Indian Act in February 2013 are rejecting the acts of what they say is “a dissident group of Lubicon members” that are not supported by the democratically elected government.
“As the elected governing chief and council – recognized as such by the provincial and federal governments – we do not agree with or condone these actions,” Chief Billy Joe Laboucan said in a press release on Wednesday. “We have been working with Penn West Exploration on an ongoing basis as the legitimate representatives of the Lubicon people and don’t want this jeopardized.”
Laboucan said Ominayak was invited to run in a “legitimate election” but declined. He said Ominayak’s actions are “counter-productive” and “don’t represent the approach of the recognized Lubicon government or the wishes of the majority of our people.”
But Gladue said the majority of Lubicon members voted in a more recent election on May 30, 2013 in favour of Ominayak, held in the nation’s central community of Little Buffalo and under the traditional customs used to elect chief and council for generations.
He called Laboucan’s government a “puppet council” put in place by the Alberta and federal governments to “divide and conquer,” and open the door to development on their resource-rich territory. He said Laboucan hasn’t lived in the community of Little Buffalo for decades.
“The sad thing is that some of our people have jumped on the bandwagon with Indian Affairs and are being told what to say and do on a daily basis,” Gladue said. “Now with the token chief and council, the government is going to use them to destroy what we’ve been fighting for all along.”
Laboucan said he and his council are working at mediating a solution agreeable to all parties.
“We want to resolve this issue in a way that promotes positive working relationships and long-term benefits for everyone involved, doing so as the elected and recognized government of the Lubicon Lake people,” he said.