Friday is the deadline First Nations’ counsel has for filing its affidavits in legal action against the federal government for failing to protect endangered woodland caribou herds.
Beaver Lake First Nation Chief Alphonse Lameman filed the legal action Sept. 8 with the Federal Court in Edmonton. The small Cree band from northeastern Alberta is joined in the action by the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation of Fort Chipewyan and the Enoch Cree First Nation near Edmonton.
The First Nations claim Environment Canada Minister Jim Prentice and his ministry have known about the precipitous decline of the woodland caribou, but have not done anything to protect the species in northeastern Alberta or its habitat.
Ecojustice filed a similar application in the same court on behalf of the Alberta Wilderness Association and the Pembina Institute. The application asks the court to order Prentice to recommend emergency protections for seven caribou herds in northeastern Alberta.
The woodland caribou is listed as a threatened species under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.
“Without immediate protection from industrial activities, these herds will disappear,” said Barry Robinson, Ecojustice staff lawyer, in a statement. “This application is the next logical step to force some sort of response. We are hopeful that the court will require the minister to do what he is legally required to do: protect a threatened species.”
The caribou protection challenge is a parallel case to one the BLFN filed in May 2008: the main constitutional challenge focusing on treaty violations by the Alberta and Canadian governments.
“It’s tangential,” explained Susan Smitten, director of communications for Woodward & Company, the law firm handling the First Nations’ cases.
While Friday is the deadline for the First Nations, the federal government had 60 days after the filing.
“We’re expecting a court date as early as January,” said Smitten. “These things move along much more quickly.”
In July, the three First Nation communities as well as the Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation sent a “strongly worded letter” to Prentice and the attorney general via Woodward & Company.
The 14-page document included information from a report released that month by Stan Boutin, described as a leading caribou expert at the University of Alberta. It was Boutin’s report that prompted the reaction from the First Nation communities.
His report said woodland caribou are in steep decline in the area because of the cumulative effects of rampant industrial development on caribou habitat, particularly by the oil and gas industry.
Boutin’s report said the East Side Athabasca River herd has declined by 71% since 1996 and the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range herd has declined 74% since 1998.
The report cautioned this level of decline is dramatic and is a strong signal that drastic immediate management action is required to keep caribou from disappearing completely in the Alberta traditional territory of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation which includes much of the oilsands region. His recommendations include habitat restoration and full protection of remaining caribou ranges in northeastern Alberta.
In the letter to Prentice, Jack Woodward, Beaver Lake counsel, charges that Prentice and his ministry have known about the woodland caribou’s precipitous decline in northeastern Alberta for several years, but to date, has done nothing to protect woodland caribou or their habitat.
All woodland caribou in Alberta were listed as threatened under the Species at Risk Act when it first came into force in 2002. The federal environment minister had a clear statutory duty under that act to prepare a recovery strategy for woodland caribou, he added.
There is still no national recovery strategy for woodland caribou, more than three years after the expiry of the mandatory deadline imposed by SARA — June 2007.
Woodland’s letter gave the federal government until Aug. 31 to comply with its mandatory statutory duties. That deadline wasn’t met, hence the Sept. 8 filing.
Meanwhile, Woodward was interviewed at length for a special two-hour episode of The Nature of Things scheduled for 8 p.m. Dec. 2 on the CBC, said Smitten. The date coincides with the one-year anniversary of Copenhagen 15.
The show focuses on the downstream effects of the oilsands development and Woodward was interviewed at length for the documentary in regards to the main constitutional challenge.
That challenge came about after the BLFN watched their traditional hunting, trapping and fishing lands rapidly being destroyed by the oil and gas industry, according to Woodward & Company information.
Legal papers filed in the Edmonton Registry by Woodward claim that Alberta and Canada have infringed Beaver Lake’s treaty rights by approving oil and gas and other developments throughout the First Nation’s core traditional territory.
Rather than file a statement of defence, Smitten said Alberta and Canadian governments have filed a motion to strike.
A court date to hear that motion is currently set for Dec. 6 to 12 in Federal Court in Edmonton.