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Traditional knowledge highlights loss of treaty rights on river
A new level of consultation that sets treaty rights as a priority is what the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations are looking for from the provincial government.
“It’s not necessarily veto power. What we want is a pretty high level of consultation process with the government. We want the government, because they signed treaty with us and gave us this guaranty to hunt, fish and trap, they would see our use (of the Athabasca River) as more of a priority,” said Melody Lepine, director of government and industry relations for the Mikisew Cree.
If the government insisted on allowing industry to use the Athabasca River, and impact the threshold of the water to the point that First Nations can no longer hunt or access traditional lands, then the government must be willing to compensate the First Nations, said Lepine.
The Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan joined forces to commission a report in response to the work being carried out by Alberta Environment to develop a framework for threshold levels of the Athabasca River.
“They asked us what our needs were. They probably didn’t think we’d do a report like this,” said Lepine.
Traditional ecological knowledge was gathered to produce As Long as the River Flows: Athabasca River Knowledge, Use and Change.
“Traditional knowledge has a depth you don’t get in other kinds of studies,” said Craig Candler, primary author of the report, whose firm Firelight Group was commissioned by the two northern First Nations.
The approach the First Nations took, said Lepine, examined the entire ecosystem, going beyond fish habitat (what the government focused on) and looking at how changing levels of the Athabasca River impact the way of life of the area’s inhabitants.
“Traditional knowledge doesn’t put things in compartments. It’s very holistic. That was an important thing . . . looking at (our)selves as part of an entire ecosystem,” said Lepine.
As Long as the River Flows notes the river thresholds that are needed in order for the Indigenous people to use the Athabasca River as a form of transportation, whether it’s to access traditional lands or to return home with a 200 lb moose kill in a boat. Already there are sandbars that make some waterways impassable.
“There is a point in the Athabasca River level where water gets so low, Aboriginal rights are radically affected. A huge part of the traditional territory has become inaccessible,” said Candler.
One of the recommendations in the report requires the federal and provincial governments get permission from the First Nations if water withdrawal is to go below the Aboriginal Baseline Flow.
“This could be considered a conditional consent,” said Candler.
Lepine said the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations produced the report jointly because they share the same concerns as well as traditional lands.
The report, said Candler, can be used by the communities to “allow them to have a stronger say in management of the river where it really affects them.”
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