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Land Rights, Oil Sands & the Most Important Bison Herd You’ve (Probably) Never Heard of

Tansi Nîtôtemtik,

Alberta’s oil sands are back in the news after 5.3 million litres of toxic tailings leaked from Imperial Oil’s Kearl Lake mine, some into tributaries of the Firebag and Muskeg rivers.[1] First Nations downstream were not informed when the leak started last May.[2] The Northwest Territories and Canadian governments only became aware this past February after First Nation governments raised alarms.[3] All these governments have condemned Alberta’s lack of regulatory oversight and failure to communicate.[4]

Several First Nation and Metis communities, including the Mikisew Cree First Nation (Mikisew) and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN), rely on hunting in and around the oil sands as part of their way of life and cultural survival. Mikisew and ACFN have asked for permission to visit the spill site and to take their own environmental measurements on a permanent basis.[5]

Most, if not all, of the Nations the author has spoken to in the area (admittedly some years ago now) have asked to be more involved in land use decision-making processes in the area. This includes having a say in where development takes place and the approval of mitigation, monitoring and reclamation plans by oil sands companies, none of which is required by Alberta law (the recent Moose Lake Agreement being a slight exception[6]).

In my opinion, the failure of Alberta to include Indigenous governments in land use decisions, such as the approval of mitigation and monitoring plans, runs counter to the aspirations and inherent rights of Indigenous communities to self-determination, including the right to use, develop and control lands they traditionally occupy.[7]

The spill has me thinking about the Ronald Lake bison herd (RLBH) – its future and its unbelievable survival story.[8]

The RLBH lives just below Wood Buffalo National Park, approximately 50-80kms north of Kearl Lake mine.[9] The herd is of huge cultural significance to Indigenous communities living near the oil sands.[10] The herd’s territory has been subject to oil sands leases since at least 2011[11] and was slated to be impacted by the proposed (but now withdrawn) Teck Resources Frontier oil sands mine.[12]

The herd is incredibly important given it is one of the last disease-free, free-ranging wood bison herds left in the world.[13]

Today, the herd has around 270 bison and is listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act (SC 2002, c29).[14] A 2020 Climate Change and Environment Canada report found the herd is threated by disease (mainly from Wood Buffalo Nation Park) and industrial development, making recovery objectives “highly unlikely or impossible” if mitigation or management actions are not implemented.[15]

While the herd remains under considerable threat, things would be much worse if not for the incredible efforts of Indigenous communities in the area to see the herd protected, including Mikisew, ACFN, Fort Chipewyan Métis and Fort McKay Métis.[16] For example, Mikisew has been a tireless and effective advocate for the protection of the herd, lobbying the Alberta government to create a protected area for the herd since at least 2016.[17]

In 2019, efforts by Mikisew and others led to the creation of the Kitaskino Nuwenene Wildland Park by Alberta, which helps to safeguard the herd’s range.[18] The park was made possible due to cooperation from energy companies such as Teck Resources, Cenovus, Imperial, Athabasca Oil and Value Creation, who handed back oil sands leases so Alberta could establish the park.[19] Forest companies Alpac and Northlands also participated.[20] However, the park did not ensure the herd’s survival.

In 2021, Alberta expanded the park even further.[21] The area covers all the herd’s calving area, but only half its total range.[22]

Image Source:

One major obstacle to the further expansion of the park is the refusal of energy company CNRL to give up leases in the area.[23]

The area in red is the herd’s range. The area in grey is existing oil sands mines. The area in beige is the formerly proposed Teck Frontier mine. The area in orange is CNRL’s lease. The light green area is the new wildland park.

Alberta has established a cooperative management board for the management of the Ronald Lake bison herd.[24] The board includes seven Indigenous communities and several other organizations and is currently developing a herd management plan.[25]

Terms of reference for the board are seemingly not available online. Based on the author’s personal knowledge of the board up to 2019, it is likely safe to say the board gives Indigenous communities a seat at the table while the management plan is being developed. This may be an important incremental step forward for Alberta but is a far cry from giving Indigenous communities true decision-making power over industrial development in the herd’s range.

Most of the Indigenous communities in the area are not opposed to development, but want to see that it’s developed responsibly, in keeping with their laws, and protecting their way of life.

If Alberta was committed to respecting the inherent and Treaty rights of Indigenous peoples and implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it could, for example, commit itself to managing the herd’s range in a consensus-style decision-making arrangement with Indigenous communities. This, of course, would be a transformative step for the province, one in line with the type of “real societal change” called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.[26]

Until next time,

The Reconcili-ACTION YEG Team

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[1] Bob Weber, “Alberta First Nation angry at Imperial’s silence while tailings pond leaked for 9 months”, CBC News (2 March 2023), online: <> [].

[2] Wallis Snowdon, Bob Weber, “Federal environment minister condemns delayed reporting of oilsands tailings leak”, CBC News (9 March 2023), online: <> [] [Federal minister].

[3] Ibid.

[4] Bob Weber, “First Nations chiefs criticize Alberta premier’s Kearl Oilsands tailings spill comments”, Global News (8 March 2023), online: <> [] [Premier’s Comments].

[5] Federal minister, supra note 2.

[6] Shari Narine, “Fort McKay First nation, Alberta reach agreement on Moose Lake access management plan” Toronto Star (10 February 2021), online: <> [].

[7] See United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, GA Res 61/295, UNGAOR, 61st Sess, No 49, Vol. III, UN Doc. A/61/49 (2008) 15; see also Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada: Volume One: Summary: Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future, 2nd printing (Toronto: James Lormier & Company LTD., Publishers, 2015) at 16 [TRC].

[8] Lisa Tssessaze, Melody Lepine, Dan Stuckless, Tammy Riel, “Opinion: Survival of Ronald Lake bison herd may depend on one oil company”, Edmonton Journal (14 July 2021), online <> [] [Survival].

[9] See Environment and Climate Change Canada, “2020 Imminent Threat Assessment for Wood Bison (Bison bison athabascae)” (2020) at 11, online (pdf): Government of Canada <> [Threat Assessment].

[10] Survival, supra note 8.

[11] See Garrett Rawleigh, Lee Hecker, “The Ronald Lake Wood Bison Herd: Observations From Their Home” (21 July 2022), online: Nature Alberta <> [].

[12] Threat Assessment, supra note 9 at 13.

[13] Survival, supra note 8.

[14] Ibid; Threat Assessment, supra note 9; see also Katie Sowden “The Ronald Lake Wood Bison Herd in Alberta” (26 August 2022), online: Alberta Environment and Parks <> [] [AEP].

[15] Threat Assessment, supra note 9 at 18, 33.

[16] Survival, supra note 8.

[17] See Mikisew Cree, “Kitaskino-Nuwene Wildland Park (KNWP)” (Accessed 14 March 2023), online: Mikisew Cree <> []; see also Government of Alberta, News Release, “Historic agreement protects northern boreal forest” (11 March 2019), online: Government of Alberta <> [].

[18] Ibid.

[19] Survival, supra note 8.

[20] Ibid.

[21] See CBC News, “Alberta plans massive expansion of Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland area” (11 February 2021), online: CBC News <> []; see also Government of Alberta, “Kitaskino Nuwenëné Wildland Expansion Fact Sheet” (January 2022), online (pdf): Government of Alberta <> [].

[22] AEP, supra note 14.

[23] Survival, supra note 8.

[24] AEP, supra note 14.

[25] Ibid.

[26] TRC, supra note 7 at 16.

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