Fort McKay profits from Tar Sands even as land is destroyed

Band office at Fort McKay. photo: APTN

Band office at Fort McKay. photo: APTN

Benefits of oil boom for northern First Nation outweigh the losses caused by industrial development, for now

by Brandi Morin, APTN National News, June 23, 2015

The main road running through Fort McKay looks like it was newly paved and painted.

It is bright and green here, looking fresh and on the brink of summer.

The river flows gently alongside the community as the day comes alive with the sounds of power tools, trucks and other machinery echoing against the backdrops of its forested setting.

Fort McKay is prospering, and it shows in the on-going construction of large, eye-pleasing, modern day houses. The distinct architectural designs make this reserve look like an urban, middle to upper-class suburb.

The impressive infrastructure is apparent almost everywhere in the small community of approximately 400 except for an area of town along the river where older homes were built with less extravagance.

The contrast between the new and the old is striking.

An up-to-date arena provides recreational activities; a contemporary child-care center and elder’s center overlooks the ancient river utilized by people here for centuries.

The interior of Fort McKay's

The interior of Fort McKay’s “business centre.” Photo: APTN

A multi-million dollar 1,300 seat amphitheatre built to host Treaty Days celebrations and concerts- Dwight Yoakam played there last summer- sits on a hillside overlooking the community, in a clearing under the wide open sky above.

The band office/business center is a marvel, it’s grandeur features a rustic looking, two-story circular layout hemmed in by windows of various sizes.

During the workday, noon hour yoga sessions are held outback down by the riverside.

A youth center is under construction and more infrastructure projects are in the works.

Money for the projects come from business endeavours with industry. Fort McKay sits north of Canada’s oil boom town Fort McMurry but is surrounded by the development of the tar sands within a 6km radius.

Although, there is wealth in Fort McKay and the First Nation appears to be putting it to good use, such as investing in the community, on the other hand their surrounding lands are being devoured by the very hand that feeds them.

“It’s really a double-edged sword,” said Dayle Hyde, Fort McKay education director. “We can see it (industry), we can hear it, and we can smell it. But we are trying to lesson a lot of those negative impacts by making sure there’s a lot of good things in Fort McKay.”

By partnering with industry Fort McKay has negotiated long-term agreements that will ensure their prosperity long into the future, or as long as tar sands are operating on their territory.

Tar Sands landscape in northern Alberta.

Tar Sands landscape in northern Alberta.

“The industry was going to happen anyway, so I think if we didn’t take active participation in terms of trying to benefit from development, I believe we would’ve been an island of poverty surrounded by industry,” said Hyde.

Most revenues come from the Fort McKay Group of Companies, joint ventures and long-term benefit agreements that enable Fort McKay to gross an average $150 million in annual revenue. The nation only accesses 4 per cent in annual government funding.

The Group of Companies holds various contracts with oil companies in labour, logistics, warehousing and heavy equipment. It also runs an industrial park on reserve lands collecting property taxes to the businesses operating there.

Fort McKay Group of Companies CEO Jim Carberry said they’re doing alright despite the recent fall in oil prices. Last year they took in approximately 90 million and predict to be down to 60 million in profits for 2015. But industry looks out for them in times like these, he said, to make sure they stay afloat.

“We’re doing ok. Shell Albian have gone out of their way, that we have enough work to keep us going, we’re making a profit. They’ve been very kind to Fort McKay to make sure we still have opportunities to keep working,” said Carberry.

Jim Boucher, chief of the Fort McKay First Nation.

Jim Boucher, chief of the Fort McKay First Nation.

Carberry attributes the success of the community to the business savvy skills of Chief Jim Boucher. Most people in Fort McKay are either directly or indirectly employed by the tar sands and many are entrepreneurs.

“They have a chief who is honest and safe,” said Carberry. “The chief had a vision. Now, lots of individuals got into business and they don’t have to go to the band office looking for handouts.”

Boucher has led Fort McKay for almost 30 years and is the second highest paid chief in Canada.

He received flak last year when under the federal governments Financial Transparency Act it was revealed that he made a $644, 441 tax-free salary.

Band officials defended their leader saying his pay aligned with the nation’s policy and said community members were made aware of how much the chief is paid.

Boucher is sought out as a business leader and key-note speaker at many industry events.

He is charming, fashionable, likes to golf, has a keen sense of humour and an optimistic outlook.

He grew up on the land, learning a traditional lifestyle of hunting and trapping from his father and other relatives, but he said times have changed and Fort McKay must adapt accordingly.

“In order for people to be healthy is for them to be successful,” said Boucher. “Industry will help us to build a foundation so that we can achieve higher and higher objectives in the future.”

He’s not too concerned about the current state of the Alberta economy, Fort McKay has been there, done that a number of times before and survived.

They will have to make some adjustments in terms of priorities, cut back on staff and expenditures, but commit to continue funding existing programs and services.

“We haven’t seen a big effect yet, our economy is quite massive we have quite a few undertakings going on at the moment,” said Boucher.

They are looking into diversifying their business endeavours in order to not be entirely reliant on a single resource, like oil, to ensure the growth of their economy going forward.

The band has established a $56 million dollar community trust fund that they project will continue to grow.

Boucher is excited to begin work with other First Nations and share his knowledge to help them tap into profiting off of resource development.

“The opportunities are huge, the potential is huge for our communities. I’m really hopeful and optimistic we are going to be successful in what we do.”

The other side

Elders who remember growing up with no power, no vehicles and without the other luxuries of contemporary living don’t necessarily believe that money makes everything better.

“McKay is not the way it used to be,” said Barbara Faichney. “We now have transportation and communication. We weren’t rich (back then) but we were happy. Now the people, I see them here – they have everything, but they’re not happy.”

Along with the money comes addictions and the headaches of other ills says another elder Clara Mercer.

“People went to work, people now have vehicles, and we have good homes here and well-kept yards. But along with the big bucks coming into the community we do also have social problems,” she said.

These kinds of common issues are faced by many communities, but this one has a mounting problem building, from the deterioration of their environment.

Lifelong resident Cece Fitzpatrick ran against Chief Boucher in the last two elections, in 2011 she lost by only one vote. She said change is needed in the community and that more attention should be paid to addressing the environmental concerns rather than making money.

“I often think maybe we should just build a dome over McKay. The people that work in industry, they’re only there temporary. They retire. They go away and they build houses somewhere else. We’re going to be left. This is our life…our livelihood,” warned Fitzpatrick.

(In early June, APTN correspondent Brandi Morin traveled to the community of Fort McKay First Nation. From June 22 to 26, Brandi will provide a series of stories looking at the community that sits in the heart of the tar sands.)


Posted on June 23, 2015, in Indian Act Indians, Oil & Gas and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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