FORT CHIPEWYAN, Alta. - Alberta Premier Jim Prentice and aboriginal chiefs from the oilsands region have agreed to sit down face-to-face to try to deal with concerns that have resulted in a number of lawsuits and reviews.
"There's a lengthy list of issues and grievances which need to be discussed and I think the best way to do that is for the premier to actually engage with the leadership of those First Nations," Prentice said after meetings with the leadership of the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations.
Prentice, who serves as the province's aboriginal affairs minister in addition to his duties as premier, was to also meet with local Metis and the Fort McKay band Monday.
"The intent is at a leadership level to bring in the chiefs of these First Nations so they can have a direct discussion with the premier. It should allow us to get to the bottom of some of the issues that have been raised."
Athabasca Chipewyan Chief Allan Adam said Monday's meeting was productive.
"I'm optimistic about the fact we've probably found a way to move forward with regards to working together," he said. "We're trying to find ways of working on an avenue so we don't have to go to court any more."
The issues to be discussed will include virtually all the major grievances that area aboriginals have expressed in recent years concerning rapid oilsands development, Prentice said. The talks will cover land-use planning, environmental monitoring, the state of industrial development, health concerns and access to public lands.
Those topics have spawned either lawsuits, legislative reviews or a nasty public spats between the province and aboriginals.
"This is a better way forward than negotiating through lawyers or through the media," Prentice said.
He said it's crucial to have First Nations on board for initiatives such as the government's environmental monitoring plan. Aboriginal groups have withdrawn from that program over concerns it's not asking the questions that aboriginals are concerned about, or putting enough weight on traditional knowledge.
Aboriginal leaders have had similar talks with past provincial leaders including Alison Redford, Ed Stelmach and Ralph Klein. Prentice said his own personal history on the issue as a land claims negotiator and former federal minister of aboriginal affairs speaks to his ability to get things done.
"If you look at my career over the course of a lifetime, it's resulted in significant forward progress working with leadership of First Nations," he said. "They know that and they recognize that and they're prepared to sit down at my invitation at a table to discuss the issues."
Adam said the premier might be the one to resolve issues that have defeated his predecessors.
"Jim Prentice understands the fact that right now we need to move on some issues," he said. "The world is watching us — we'd better make it good because we have one shot."
Prentice said the discussions would begin before the end of the year. He didn't suggest how the talks might result in action.
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton