Erin Blondeau is one of two recipients of the 2022 CJF-CBC Indigenous Journalism Fellowships, established to encourage Indigenous voices and better understanding of Indigenous issues in Canada's major media and community outlets.
A coalition of environmental groups is taking the fight against an Alberta coal mine expansion to the international stage at the 27th annual United Nations climate conference (COP27) this month.
Keepers of the Water is a coalition of First Nations, Métis, Inuit, and environmental groups formed in 2006 over concerns about water quality in the Mackenzie River. The coalition has since expanded as more communities come forward with concerns about pollution in their watersheds.
Their goal at COP 27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, is to raise awareness of the potential expansion of the Vista coal mine near Hinton, Alta., and proposals for the treatment and release of oil sands tailings. If an expansion of the coal mine proceeds, it has the potential to be one of the largest export thermal coal mines in North America, according to Coalspur, the mine's owner.
"Word needs to get out there to the world, to the countries that are trying to combat climate change and carbon emissions, for them to know what's happening on the ground in the communities," said Jesse Cardinal, executive director of Keepers of the Water.
Fate of mine uncertain as government pledges to ban coal exports
Coalspur Mines was planning to build an expansion to an existing surface coal mine and a new underground mine, but the project stalled in 2020 when the federal environment minister announced that a federal impact assessment was required before it could proceed.
Coalspur and Ermineskin Cree Nation challenged the minister's decision. Ermineskin has an impact benefits agreement for the project.
Coalspur has not responded to requests for comment.
Court battles over federal assessment
According to court documents, Ermineskin Cree Nation argued that its constitutional rights were breached when the federal government failed to consult with them on the requirement of a federal assessment.
A federal judge sided with Ermineskin, finding that it "was inexplicably frozen out of this very one-sided process" as the federal government had consulted only with Indigenous groups that were seeking a federal impact assessment, which included Keepers of the Water. The judge ordered the minister to reconsider the matter.
In September 2021, the minister again ordered a federal assessment, citing "adverse effects to fish and fish habitat" and damage to the "intergenerational transmission of cultural heritage" of Indigenous peoples.
Later that year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced at COP26 that Canada will end exports of thermal coal by 2030.
Carol Wildcat, Ermineskin's Industrial Relations consultation director, said she cannot comment on specifics of the case but said she has to consider the wellbeing of her community with a project like the Coalspur mine expansion.
"We need to do stuff that is going to benefit the future … but I also have to look after the socioeconomic needs of people who have been consistently on the outside looking in," Wildcat said.
Wildcat said Ermineskin is concerned about the environmental impact of the Vista coal mine, but could not elaborate as the details of the impact benefit agreement are confidential.
According to court documents, the agreement between Coalspur and Ermineskin is intended to create mutually beneficial opportunities and compensate Ermineskin for potential adverse impacts caused by the coal development.
"I'm not entering into this stuff blindly," Wildcat said.
"I have also water that comes from that area that's going to be coming to my people, finally…. Why would I harm the environment that lets me live as a human?"
Coal mining impacts traditional activities
The Mountain Cree Camp, previously known as Small Boy Camp, is located 55 kilometres from the mine.
"I do not support this coal mine," said Roanne Roan, a member of the Mountain Cree Camp.
Roan said the community's traditional activities of gathering medicines and berries were impacted from the coal industry.
"It is extremely disturbing because we're so connected with the land," Roan said.
Thermal coal is used to generate electricity when it is burned. Coal-fired power plants emit carbon pollution and tiny airborne particles that cause an estimated 650,000 premature deaths each year globally, according to a 2021 study in Nature Climate Change.
Ecojustice, an environmental law charity representing Keepers of the Water in court, has said the expansion could result in the extraction of up to 15 megatonnes of coal from the Vista mine each year. When burned, that would release 33 megatons of carbon into the atmosphere annually — equivalent to the pollution from 7 million passenger vehicles each year.
Cardinal said she is eager to attend COP27 to have Keepers of the Water meet with other Indigenous coalitions to raise awareness of the impacts of fossil fuel expansion.
Each year, Indigenous peoples from around the world gather at the International Indigenous Peoples' Forum on Climate Change to participate in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) process. The UNFCCC is what the Conference of Parties meets to discuss every year.
"We're so excited to be carrying a message to the international stage. It's vital, and it's necessary," Cardinal said.