Fort McKay First Nation, Suncor sign MOU on developing oilsands lease

Suncor and the Fort McKay First Nation have partnered to develop a potential oilsands lease on the First Nation’s reserve land.

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A partnership with the Fort McKay First Nation is allowing Suncor to develop a potential oilsands lease on the First Nation’s reserve land.

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Chief Raymond Powder estimates that at full production, the project can generate $44 million in revenue and $2.25 million in royalties for the next five years. Suncor’s leadership believes it could potentially provide the company with enough bitumen beyond 2040.

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“This means we are really benefiting from our region and this new development is an opportunity for developing our programs, our services and our infrastructure,” said Powder in an interview. “Because the opportunities seem endless, this is a new way to say that we wanna grow. We will have full inclusivity of actually having control of our land and our resources. This is quite a blessing.”

The roots of the development goes back to a 2003 referendum for Fort McKay First Nation. During a vote on Treaty Land Entitlement settlements, the land being transferred to the First Nation had existing oilsands deposits.

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The referendum asked if people consented to future development on those lands. People voted favourably for development and the land was transferred to the First Nation in 2004. Regulations on development were formed in 2007 following agreements with the federal and provincial governments.

This memorandum of understanding has been in development since 2022, said Powder. Consultation with Elders and members began around 2020. Powder said the agreement is the first of its kind in Canada between an oilsands company and an Indigenous community.

Powder said development does not clash with the First Nation’s environmental stewardship goals. He compared the project to the Moose Lake Access Management Plan (MLAMP), which creates a 10-kilometre buffer around an area the community considers culturally significant.

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“Today is about bringing economic growth and good jobs to Fort McKay. It is also about protecting the Nation’s land, the water and the air,” Powder said at a Tuesday press conference in Edmonton. “We can do this, as we have done at Moose Lake, with the land, trees and water protected now forever. No one is more qualified to do this work, growing the economy and protecting the environment, than we are.”

A statement from Suncor says the partnership is in line with a goal of achieving net-zero emissions from operations by 2050. This target is shared by the rest of the Pathways Alliance, a coalition of five oilsands companies lobbying for carbon capture and storage in the region.

“Through this partnership, Fort McKay First Nation has the opportunity to govern oilsands activity on their land and fully participate and benefit from responsible resource development,” said Peter Zebedee, Suncor’s executive vice president of oilsands, in a statement.

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At a separate press conference on Thursday, Premier Danielle Smith said she hopes to see more Indigenous communities form similar partnerships with industry. She praised existing agreements Indigenous communities have with pipeline and natural gas projects through the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation.

“To see a proposal where a band is going to be in on the ground floor of production just warms my heart,” said Smith. “I would say that the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples includes their right to say yes to resource development, and that is one of the messages that have come through loud and clear from the Indian Resource Council as well as the National Coalition of Chiefs.”

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