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News Release: Indigenous Elder Speaks Out for First Time Against Suncor’s Planned Fort Hills Expansion into McClelland Wetlands

November 1, 2023

An aerial photo of the charismatic McClelland patterned fen, which has formed over the past 8 to 11 thousand years. Suncor’s Operational Plan poses a significant risk of irreversible damage to the wetland complex if its permitted to proceed. Photo © Phillip Meintzer.

Elder Barb Faichney of Fort McKay First Nation (FMFN) says Suncor hasn’t meaningfully addressed the concerns of Indigenous communities in its plans to expand the Fort Hills oil sands mine into the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex and that Suncor has continually mischaracterized her input to suit their needs.

Elder Faichney (or Barb) is the first Indigenous community member affected by the Fort Hills expansion to share their concerns with Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) directly, and she also participates on Suncor’s Sustainability Committee (SC). The SC was established to inform the development of Suncor’s Operational Plan for the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex, but participation on this committee has meant that most of the Indigenous communities involved have been unable to express concerns publicly.

The complex is a large wetland area near Fort McMurray. It features peatlands and a provincially significant patterned fen which has formed over the past eight to 11 thousand years. The complex is a hotspot for biodiversity. 205 bird species use the area, including four species at risk. McClelland Lake is one of the last remaining safe landing places for birds in a region dominated by toxic tailings ponds.

Barb was born in Fort McMurray in 1954, but most of her childhood (until she was 15 years old) was spent living in the vicinity of McClelland Lake and the greater wetland area. She described McClelland as the “land we were raised on, and now Suncor are going in and destroying it.”

She remembers an important place for cranberry picking that they called “Berry Hill,” which used to be covered by a thick blanket of berries, but now it’s just an open pit where Suncor’s Fort Hills mine currently sits, waiting to progress eastward towards the wetland complex. “It made me cry”, Barb says about the loss of Berry Hill.

Barb also told us about an area within the patterned fen, which is a very important nesting site for ducks, but that this nesting area is right next to the part of the patterned fen, which is destined for mining and will likely be destroyed if the expansion goes ahead.

Commercial scale production from Alberta’s oil sands didn’t begin in earnest until 1967, which means that throughout Barb’s life she has witnessed the cumulative impacts of development firsthand. She remembers her father telling their family that they should stop drinking from McClelland Lake in the early 1980s, even if it was boiled. They felt that the water was no longer safe to consume.

Barb feels that most of her community is unwilling to speak out against Suncor, or at least it comes off that way to her. “I don’t think that people want to ruffle any tail feathers,” she tells us. “Everyone just wants to stay quiet and get by, but what will they [Suncor] do to me if I speak out?” Barb tells us she no longer relies on Suncor, and she feels empowered to speak out on these sorts of issues. Barb feels that everyone fears industry because they have the wealth and resources to hire “better lawyers” to make sure these sorts of projects get pushed through. It makes mounting any sort of resistance seem futile.

She said that she remembers a time when a company put up a gate blocking access to her family’s trapline at McClelland. But she wasn’t going to let a gate stop her. “The oil companies say that the gates are for our protection, but what are they protecting us from? Themselves?” She says that these companies are the ones causing the harm.

Barb says that since the Operational Plan was approved in September 2022, Suncor seems to no longer be receptive to the concerns or needs of Indigenous Communities, including of those who sit on Suncor’s sustainability committee. Barb said that there have been much fewer meetings in the past year than in prior years. Suncor still has many commitments it needs to fulfill, such as wildlife monitoring based on community-suggested indicators, but Barb says that it feels like Suncor is “backing away from these commitments” now that it has approval from the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER).

Suncor’s Operational Plan is supposed to guarantee the protection of the unmined portion of the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex from the impacts of construction and mining at their Fort Hills Oil Sands Mine. The AER approved Suncor’s Operational Plan in September 2022, but an AWA report from April 2023 found several major concerns with Suncor’s plan. The plan contains many significant gaps, which pose a significant risk to the ecological diversity and function of the unmined area.

Barb doesn’t believe that the Suncor staff are bad people, they’re just following orders down the chain of command. “Suncor aren’t dumb, they just don’t care about the environment at all.”

“Everything we grew up with has been damaged [by industry],” Barb tells us. She believes the impacts of the new construction for the mine expansion, if it goes through, like building an underground cut-off wall, will be felt immediately. “All the wetlands all over the area are linked together and linked to that lake. You cannot cut off one area from another without causing harm.”

Barb says she is glad she can speak out against Suncor, and she understands that other people must keep silent so that they can keep working just to put food on the table (even though industry is the reason why they can no longer feed themselves in the first place). Corporations (and the colonial governments that enable them) have harmed the environment and prevented communities from living traditionally.

She reemphasized how happy she has been to hear about the work that AWA has been doing to try and protect McClelland and that our visit was “the first time in 20 years where she has felt that someone else cares [about McClelland] like I do”.

The submission of AWA’s report resulted in the AER opening a Reconsideration Process for its approval decision. As things stand, Phase 1 of the Reconsideration Process concluded on July 27, but AWA is still waiting on the AER to decide on whether to proceed with Phase 2 of this process.

For more information, please contact:
Phillip Meintzer, AWA Conservation Specialist
(403) 771-1647

A healthy relationship to the wilderness is not in the least incompatible with civilized living. Indeed, I believe it to be an indispensable condition thereof; that no man is truly civilized unless he is involved in and cares for the wilderness.
- Ashley Montagu, 1969
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