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First Nation protest camp in northern Alberta served with court injunction

Protesters occupying a camp established by a First Nation in northern Alberta to defy drilling operations on its traditional lands have been ordered to vacate. 

The camp — a tipi and tents flanked by rows of trucks lining the road 75 kilometres east of Peace River, Alta. — is Woodland Cree First Nation’s latest effort to oppose Obsidian Energy’s expansion plans.

The camp is the latest development in an increasingly tense conflict between Woodland Cree and Obsidian after the operator was blamed for a string of earthquakes in the region.

The First Nation says it is owed meaningful consultation and final authority over what industrial development occurs on its traditional lands. Company officials say it has consulted with the WCFN and the Indigenous community has no such veto rights. 

The camp was established Sunday near the Harmon Valley South field in Peace River, immediately south of Woodland Cree First Nation — cutting off an access road to Obsidian lease sites. 

Protesters are now under orders to leave. Obsidian company officials were granted an injunction Monday in the Court of King’s Bench against the Woodland Cree First Nation and people occupying the camp.

‘We’re intending to stay’

Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom was formally served notice by a court bailiff who arrived at the camp the following morning. The court injunction prohibits protesters from intimidating workers and from blocking access to the drill sites. RCMP may be called in to enforce the order if the court determines that police assistance is needed.

As of Wednesday morning, around 80 people remained at the camp.

Laboucan-Avirom said the community will continue to assert their rights. The camp will remain until negotiations with Obsidian resume, he said. 

“We’re intending to stay,” Laboucan-Avirom told CBC News in an interview Tuesday evening. “This is our traditional land.”

Laboucan-Avirom said his members are concerned about the cumulative impacts on their traditional lands and the risk of additional industry-caused earthquakes if Obsidian’s drilling operations intensify.

“If they want to work in our territory, they’re going to have to do that work with respect for the people and the land,” he said.

The First Nation community has repeatedly called on the Calgary-based company to halt its expansion plans. WCFN initially raised concerns about the company’s activities on their territory four months ago. 

In February, the First Nation erected its first protest camp, urging Obsidian company officials to address a series of earthquakes in the region in 2022 and 2023. The Alberta Energy Regulator found that Obsidian had caused the seismic events by disposing of industrial wastewater underground.  

The protests had resolved but after talks between the company and First Nation broke down, and plans for an expansion ramped up, the new camp was established by band members.

An aerial view of the camp established by Woodland Cree First Nation
An aerial view of the camp established by Woodland Cree First Nation to call for a halt to Obsidian Energy’s expansion plans in the Peace region of northern Alberta. (Submitted by Paul Lavoie)

Obsidian produces around 6,500 barrels of oil equivalent per day, or 20 per cent of its total production, from assets in the Peace River region, some of which are within Woodland Cree territory.

Obsidian recently told shareholders that it plans to increase production by 12 per cent this year and focus most of its drilling program on the Peace River region.

Laboucan-Avirom said the First Nation wants to work with industry but Obsidian has not complied with its legal obligations. The First Nation is seeking legal advice on next steps if Obsidian doesn’t engage in negotiations, he said.

“I’d rather work with industry and the provincial governments, but if they’re forcing me into a corner, I will have to [pursue] a legal challenge.” 

‘Unrealistic terms’

An environmental protection order issued by the AER in March, 2023 blamed the company’s operations for inducing a string of seismic events in the region and ordered the company to improve its monitoring and mitigation plans. 

Obsidian is appealing the environmental protection order and a review is pending. In a statement to CBC, company officials say operations continue to comply with all regulatory obligations.

“We have unfortunately reached a negotiating impasse with WCFN’s senior leadership,” Stephen Loukas, Obsidian’s president and chief executive officer said in a statement.

“Obsidian Energy has informed WCFN’s senior leadership that we cannot accept their unrealistic terms that amount to a monopolistic relationship.” 

Loukas said the company is open to meeting with WCFN leadership.  But regardless of the outcome,the company can pursue existing regulatory approvals to proceed with expansion in the region, he said. 

“WCFN does not have a veto right, only a requirement for consultation regarding development on traditional lands … We have employed the WCFN for services and consulted with them on a number of matters over the years, including agreeing to meet with them to discuss any environmental, health and safety concerns.” 

RCMP have described the camp as peaceful. In an interview, RCMP Cpl. Mathew Howell said police are hoping the protest will resolve before they’re called to enforce the order. 

Laboucan-Avirom is hopeful too that arrests can be avoided. 

“I’d rather get this resolved sooner than later,” he said. “But we will be out here as long as we have to.” 

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