EDMONTON — The Alberta government must pull back its new Forest Act before it becomes law next month, says the grand chief of the province's northern First Nations.
"We expect the province to suspend the new Forest Act immediately," Arthur Noskey of Treaty 8 First Nations said Thursday. "We are asking (the government) to pull this back and consult with us."
The United Conservatives passed the act late last year and it is to come into effect May 1.
Noskey said it was drafted without meaningful consultation with the Indigenous people who live in the forests it affects. The soon-to-be law violates their treaty rights to practise their traditional way of life, he said.
"It's our livelihood. Our people still practise that way of life," he said.
"A family might be making $18,000 a year, but that's enough because the majority of their food and medicine still comes from the land. They still make a living and they choose to live like that."
Alberta Agriculture and Forestry spokesman Justin Laurence said the government did consult.
"The department took part in meaningful, ongoing conversations with the forestry companies and industrial partners, which included six companies owned by Indigenous communities," he wrote in an email.
Brock Mulligan of the Alberta Forest Products Association said the industry works closely with Indigenous communities and values those relationships.
"We regularly seek opportunities for meaningful input through engagement and planning processes," he said in an email Friday.
"Indigenous communities play an important role in our industry. Many Indigenous people work directly in the industry and Indigenous-owned businesses provide valuable services to forestry companies."
Noskey said increased logging is taking a toll on the animals and forests his people depend on.
"The forest is being overharvested," he said. "There's a chain reaction to everything that's done."
The UCP government has increased the industry's annual allowable cut.
Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen has told the legislature that the harvest has increased 13 per cent since last May and that he wants another 20 per cent increase.
It's not clear where that extra timber will come from in Alberta's already heavily allocated forests, said Grace Wark of the Alberta Wilderness Association. She said that could mean cutting on steeper slopes or returning earlier to areas burned by wildfire.
"Those areas have greater impacts on biodiversity and are more challenging to recover," she said.
A government website says the act will bring "a more expedient return" of burned areas to harvest. It also says the harvest will be increased by cutting in unallocated parts of already approved areas.
Wark said there has been little transparency and even less dialogue.
"There's been no public consultation on this."
Mulligan said the industry is committed to long-term sustainability for the forests in Alberta.
"Forestry companies are required to regenerate all harvested areas and prepare detailed plans for water, wildlife, biodiversity, and community consultation," he said. "Sustainable forestry is good for forests."
Laurence added that the annual harvest is calculated to ensure that sustainability.
"As current harvesting levels fall below the necessary threshold for ensuring long-term forest sustainability, finding strategic areas to increase to fibre access for our forest companies will provide multiple benefits, including reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire and mountain pine beetle outbreaks."
Treaty 8 includes 40 First Nations and is the largest treaty in Canada by area at 840,000 square kilometres — larger than France. It spreads into British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories and has about 40,000 members in Alberta.
Noskey said the province is obliged to consult with First Nations on a government-to-government basis and not just a few phone calls. He said courts have ruled that governments can't simply delegate First Nations consultations to companies doing the work.
"It seems like we have to force the government to the table."
He accused the province of rushing the legislation through while the public is distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We are for the economy, but we want to do it in a way that respects the land," Noskey said. "It seems with this UCP government nobody cares about the environment.
"It's a free-for-all."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 9, 2021.
— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: An earlier version said the Alberta Forest Products Association did not reply to a request for comment. The story has been updated to include its comment.