Update: Arrest requested in Woodland Cree dispute with oil company

Updated: May 29, 2024 – Correction. The article should have said – Obsidian asked a judge to have Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom arrested. He was not arrested. – Correction in italics (second paragraph). See apology letter from Chris Clegg, South Peace News editor, who edited the article here.

Susan Thompson
For the Lakeside Leader

Police presence has increased in the Harmon Valley area as a dispute between the Woodland Cree First Nation (WCFN) and Obsidian Energy continues.

Obsidian asked a judge to have Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom arrested, for setting up what is being called a blockade, limiting access to the company’s sites.

In a May 15 press release, Obsidian CEO Stephen Loukas says, “It is currently difficult to see a clear path to a negotiated resolution of our commercial dispute with the WCFN. We reserve the right to pursue all legal means to restore the lawful operation of our HVS field, and may, without further notice, commence civil litigation against the WCFN and related parties for damages, including but not limited to, all foregone revenue on shut-in production.”

But Treaty 8 Chiefs from across the western provinces gathered in Peace River for a press conference May 16 to make it clear they will back the Woodland Cree.

“When it comes to jailing our chiefs, I think you will see a lot of chiefs…in jail,” says Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey.

“I think there is an uprising in the making,” he adds.

Local contractors Weaver Welding, MDP Oilfield Services, Ruel Concrete and more have also parked equipment at the WCFN camp and continue to support it – despite Obsidian’s latest legal threats.

Edmonton-Griesbach MP Blake Desjarlais has raised the dispute in Ottawa, where he’s asked the Liberal government to uphold the Woodland Cree’s treaty rights.

“Trinkets and beads, Mr. Speaker. That’s what Obsidian Energy, an American company, has been willing to offer the Woodland Cree First Nation,” Desjarlais says.

“It’s a shameful display of colonial tactics that have plagued Indigenous communities for generations.”

So far, RCMP have been reluctant to enforce the court injunction. RCMP have been staging at the Harmon Valley rodeo grounds, but K Division liaisons have been at the camp daily and say they would rather see a resolution to what they view as a contract dispute. They’ve focused on mediation between the energy company and the WCFN.

On May 23, Obsidian Energy employees and representatives from the Alberta Energy Regulator checked the tank farms and other sites behind the WCFN camp to ensure everything was operating properly, after being shut in for the better part of the past two weeks. The first stop was the epicentre of the earthquakes that rocked the Peace Region. The AER has ruled those earthquakes were the fault of Obsidian, but Obsidian is appealing the environmental protection order. A hearing is scheduled for this November.

AER representatives say they are neutral in the dispute between WCFN and Obsidian.

“Obsidian is changing the dynamics of industry, within our backyard and others,” says Chief Laboucan-Avirom.

“There’s lots of good work to be done, but this is an example of how industry flips the narrative. There is also a lot of respectful industry out there. This is one bad actor, giving them all a bad name.

“I’m not looking for a handout,” adds Chief Laboucan-Avirom. “I’m looking to just provide and to protect our own people, with our own ways and our own rights. We want to be part of the workforce. We want to develop megaprojects. We want to be owners of the resources. And you’re darn rights it is about money. My people shouldn’t be living in poverty.”

He continues.

“Our kids need a brighter future. Seven out of 10 of us are going to die sooner than Canada’s population. Seven out of 10 of our kids are in Child and Family Services issues. That’s because of our poverty. So how is this greed? It’s actually the other way around, where a greedy American company wants to come dictate on our land. I don’t think so.”

Chief Laboucan-Avirom says the WCFN leadership is prepared to camp, “as long as the sun shines, the rivers flow, and the grass grows.”

But he also says WCFN still wants to come back to the table to seek a resolution with Obsidian.

“We want to start off with a clean slate.”

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