Tensions escalating between Woodland Cree First Nation, Obsidian Energy

“We’re doing this in a peaceful manner, so I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that.” – Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom

By Susan V. Thompson, special for Energi Media

Negotiations between the Woodland Cree First Nation (WCFN) and Obsidian Energy have once again broken down. 

Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom. Source: Susan V. Thompson.

Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom, WCFN council, and their lawyer walked away from a meeting with Obsidian CEO Stephan Loukas in Peace River on May 13 and returned to their traditional camp on an Obsidian oil lease road, despite a court injunction. 

“They had no intent to negotiate,” says Chief Laboucan-Avirom, who walked out mere moments after the meeting began.

K Division police liaisons attempted to mediate between the two groups, urging the Woodland Cree to return to the boardroom table at the Chateau Nova. 

Councillor Joseph Whitehead Jr. and WCFN’s lawyer did return to speak further with Loukas, but left again less than five minutes later. As Whitehead Jr. and WCFN’s legal counsel left, someone in the room could be heard saying they are, “unlawfully blockading.”

Obsidian CEO Stephen Loukas refused to comment while leaving the meeting room not long after, repeating only, “Rangers in 6.”

The WCFN first established a camp at the entrance to an Obsidian oil site in the South Harmon Valley field in Peace River, immediately south of Woodland Cree First Nation, on May 5, and issued an official notice to Obsidian rejecting Obsidian’s planned 12% increase in drilling in the area. 

WCFN also say they have concerns about an Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) Environmental Protection Order stating that Obsidian caused several major earthquakes by injecting wastewater into the ground. Obsidian is currently appealing the AER decision. 

“WCFN does not have a veto right, only a requirement for consultation regarding development on traditional lands. Any of our planned development that involves WCFN is on traditional lands, and there is a well-established regulatory process for obtaining licenses and permits on these lands (as we stated in the release),” says Obsidian spokesperson Susan Soprovich. “…less than 1% of our reserves are in or near Indigenous lands.”

Obsidian claims that it not only has the right to use existing regulatory processes to obtain permits and licenses to execute on its three-year growth plan, but that it has the “flexibility to accelerate other Peace River locations within our extensive portfolio to achieve our growth objectives.”

Two days after the traditional camp was established, the Woodland Cree were served with a court injunction obtained by Obsidian demanding that they leave. Chief Laboucan-Avirom burned the legal paperwork in the camp fire, saying he was filing it “with the Great Spirit.” 

WCFN was joined at the camp in following days by several other First Nations. Chiefs from Sturgeon Lake, Tall Cree, Sucker Creek, Lubicon Lake, Kapawe’no First Nation and other Indigenous communities raised flags at the camp or sent letters in support. 

“We’re trying to push for the governments, and the oil and gas industry, if you’re the principal cause of the issue, the earthquakes, then you’d better do some backtracking and you’d better do some resolution with all people that are impacted,” says Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey, who visited the camp in support and raised the Treaty 8 flag. 

“Maybe this is what we need to do all across Treaty 8 to bring the governments to the table to talk seriously.”

Multiple local oilfield contractors such as Ruel Concrete, MDP Oilfield Services, Weaver Welding, and others have brought or parked their heavy equipment at the camp in an unprecedented show of support from Peace region industry. 

Michel Pelchat, owner of MDP Oilfield Services Ltd., says the Peace Oil Sands have been slow since Shell shut down the Carmon Creek project. He initially thought Obsidian’s plans for more drilling were good news. 

“I thought well, they’re going to expand here, that will be great for everybody,” Pelchat says. 

But instead, Obsidian brought in Pidherny’s, a company based in Rocky Mountain House, to work on the expansion,. Local contractors like Pelchat now feel shut out of a new opportunity to put their people and equipment to work. 

“We have to stick together here because we support the local economy. If we’re not working out there, we’re not going to be spending any money,” says Pelchat. “It’s not just hurting me or other local contractors. It’s going to hurt the Town of Peace River.”

On Saturday, May 11, the Woodland Cree moved their traditional camp to the much busier Walrus Road. Chief Laboucan-Avirom says the First Nation gave Obsidian the road they wanted, and the new camp is closer to the paved portion of the South Harmon Valley road so, “it’s a lot safer.”

By Monday, Loukas was in Peace River to meet with the Chief and council. However, those negotiations quickly fell apart. 

RCMP have so far not enforced the injunction against the camp, in hopes the two parties could reach an agreement. However, it remains to be seen how long that will last now that tensions have escalated. 

“We’re doing this in a peaceful manner, so I’m hoping it doesn’t come to that,” says Chief Laboucan-Avirom. “But if it does I think it will definitely send the wrong messages to other First Nations across this country.” 

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