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Aboriginal groups feel 'ostracized'

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EDMONTON -- A "world-class" environmental monitoring program being set up in northern Alberta's oilsands region is being heavily criticized even before it gets fully up and running.

In an angry letter to Premier Alison Redford, area aboriginal groups say the provincial and federal governments have already broken promises to involve them in the design and implementation of the system, which is considered crucial to understanding the industry's impacts and answering the concerns of its critics.

"The Mikisew Cree and the Athabasca Chipewyan are extremely disappointed with the failure of Environment Canada and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development to honour their promises," begins the letter obtained by The Canadian Press.

The June 27 missive points out although federal and provincial scientists are already in the field, aboriginal people who live in the area remain "politically ostracized from all involvement."

That's despite explicit recommendations from the experts who designed the system and who said aboriginals should be heavily involved through community-based monitoring and by tapping into traditional knowledge. Those suggestions were accepted in the implementation plan adopted by both governments.

The letter also demands to know why no independent commission has been appointed to oversee the monitoring that has been repeatedly touted as "world class" by officials.

"We wish to respectfully remind the premier that she promised in the February launch of the world-class monitoring system that there would be an independent commission to oversee monitoring," the letter says. "Given that the world-class monitoring program has been collecting data for almost eight months, where is this commission?"

Alberta Environment spokesman Mark Cooper said both groups have had several chances this spring to have a look at the program and offer input. In some cases aboriginals have worked alongside federal scientists, he said.

"It is critical that we have First Nations involvement," said Cooper.

"We're continuing to engage with them. There have been many workshops with First Nations to discuss ongoing work and implementation of the joint plan which would include governance and how they would be involved in that."

The program was announced last February in response to years of criticism that analysis of the environmental impacts of the massive and rapidly expanding oilsands industry was deeply inadequate.

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 11, 2012 A21

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