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Police present but not enforcing injunction at Alberta oil blockade

Members of the Woodland Cree First Nation take part in a blockade of an oil lease road in northern Alberta in May 2024. (Credit: Paul Lavoie, Woodland Cree First Nation) Members of the Woodland Cree First Nation take part in a blockade of an oil lease road in northern Alberta in May 2024. (Credit: Paul Lavoie, Woodland Cree First Nation)
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PEACE RIVER -

Police are present at a blockade of an oil lease road in northern Alberta but say they aren't enforcing an injunction for members of a local First Nation to clear the site.

"We are aware of the situation, and we have dispatched resources to speak with both parties," said RCMP Cpl. Mathew Howell.

"We have not gone into an enforcement capacity. We're trying to get both parties to the table."

On Monday, a judge issued an injunction for members of the Woodland Cree First Nation, north of Peace River, to clear a road used by Calgary-based Obsidian Energy. The blockade was first set up in February and Obsidian says it needs the road to conduct maintenance on a pipeline site.

"This work is time-sensitive as it must be completed prior to break up and the imposition of road bans," say court documents filed by Obsidian.

Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom said the dispute began last year. He said the First Nation was taken by surprise when Obsidian announced plans for about 200 new wells without consulting the band ahead of time.

"They do have to talk to us," he said, speaking from the blockade site where protesters were finishing up a lunch of moose ribs.

"In meaningful consultation, you start out in a respectful way -- not coming at us saying, 'We're going to do this whether you like it or not."'

He said the band isn't opposed to development and has agreements with other energy companies in the area.

But he said the band has concerns about their traditional territory becoming a "checkerboard" of development. The band is also concerned about earthquake activity caused by Obsidian's work.

"We still haven't had clarity there," the chief said. "Is this something that's going to infiltrate our groundwater?"

The Alberta Energy Regulator issued an environmental protection order against Obsidian in March 2023 for causing a series of earthquakes, including the largest recorded tremor in the province's history.

Obsidian says it has a right to the road and that the site is not on the band's reserve.

Spokeswoman Susan Soprovich referred to a company statement issued in February suggesting the band is trying to strong-arm the company into granting it a monopoly on work at Obsidian's sites.

That statement quotes CEO Stephen Loukas saying, "We cannot accept their unrealistic terms that amount to a monopolistic relationship as our sole provider of certain services and as a collector of commissions for incremental services already provided to us by other companies.

"In addition to limiting our ability to operate independently in the area, their proposal is not beneficial to our stakeholders, including our shareholders, local communities and other Indigenous groups."

Loukas said Obsidian has good relationships with other First Nations. He added the company disagrees with the regulator's conclusions on what caused the earthquakes.

Laboucan-Avirom said the accusations from Loukas are overstated and the band isn't looking for a monopoly.

"Why do they have to exaggerate? We appreciate good healthy competition."

He said Obsidian is threatening to withhold work from band members as a lever to pry concessions from its leadership.

"We're not going to be intimidated on our own land."

Laboucan-Avirom said the band remains willing to talk.

"I don't want another take it or leave it," said the chief.

"We need to know what's ahead of us. Because we know what's behind us."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 8, 2024.

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