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‘An uprising in the making’: ‘Alberta’ chiefs say oil company’s forceful approach is an attack on treaty rights

May 31, 2024

Neighbouring First Nations join in solidarity with Woodland Cree as Obsidian Energy pushes for arrests


Treaty 8 chiefs held a press conference following a meeting expressing solidarity with the Woodland Cree in Peace River on May 20. Photo by Brandi Morin

Editor’s note: Over the past month, journalist Brandi Morin has made multiple trips to the Woodland Cree First Nation and the Peace River area to report on this story for Ricochet, IndigiNews and The Real News Network. This kind of on-the-ground reporting is costly, but essential. You can support our journalism by making a donation today.

First Peoples Law Report: IndigiNews – In northern “Alberta,” First Nations leaders and their neighbours are uniting against an oil and gas company that has asked a court to order the arrest and jailing of a chief and members of his nation so it can move ahead with a drilling project. 

Obsidian Energy has obtained an injunction against the Woodland Cree and their ongoing blockade of access roads, but the RCMP has yet to enforce it. A legal application filed two weeks ago by the company seeks to compel the police to confront the Woodland Cree and make arrests, which could escalate this local conflict into a national crisis. 

Meanwhile, the Woodland Cree and Obsidian are currently engaged in mediation talks, according to the First Nation, but the outcome of those is uncertain and the blockades remain active.

Estimates based on the company’s daily production and the benchmark price for oil suggest the blockade may be costing Obsidian in excess of $400,000 per day in lost revenue.

Although the resource company is nominally based in “Calgary,” CEO Stephen Loukas is American. Cree leaders suspect he isn’t well-informed on Indigenous rights and consultation duties north of the medicine line. Woodland Cree leadership has rejected Obsidian’s project, but it has been moving ahead, with the province’s permission, regardless. 

“We’ve concluded that… foreigners are making laws on sovereign lands, and we have to unite in solidarity to address what’s developing in our country,” said Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey during a press conference following a meeting of treaty chiefs expressing solidarity with the Woodland Cree in Peace River on May 20.

“We are sovereign nations with our own consultation processes and laws… this affects all of us, all of our First Nations people. And when you take a look at the resource development in our backyard, the government of Alberta has received over $30 billion, and the government of Canada is prospering as well. Yet our communities are suffering. This attack on the Woodland Cree is an attack on all of our treaty rights.”

Obsidian have not responded to requests for comment or interviews, but the company has taken a hard line in a press release, accusing the nation of attempting to “coerce” them, arguing the area is “Crown land” and saying it reserves the right “to pursue all legal means” to restore operations.

‘We are sovereign nations’
Treaty 8 Grand Chief Arthur Noskey, at the microphone, speaks during a press conference in Peace River on May 20. Photo by Brandi Morin

For decades, First Nations in “Alberta” have insisted the province pay up. “Alberta” makes billions in royalties earned from industry projects in First Nations territories, however, it has largely ignored requests to share some of those benefits with them.

The Woodland Cree say they support industrial projects and resource extraction, but not without their consent and involvement. 

The First Nation wants to be consulted on new drilling projects on their traditional territory, a share of the profits extracted from their land and enhanced environmental standards following an Alberta Energy Regulator report that blamed Obsidian for causing a series of earthquakes in the area. 

As is typical in these situations, the company has obtained an injunction requiring the blockades be removed, but the RCMP have thus far declined to take any action to enforce that order. In an unusual move, Obsidian filed an emergency application with an “Alberta” court on May 14, asking to have Woodland Cree Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom and others arrested and held in jail until the blockade is dismantled. A decision on that application is expected any day now. 

On May 21, Chief Laboucan-Avirom discovered access to one of his beloved hunting territories was blocked. Obsidian had erected a gate to another industry road not far from the Woodland Cree blockade camp.

“This is a direct attack on treaty (rights), stopping the people who live off of this land from entering their land,” said a frustrated Laboucan-Avirom while driving away from the locked gate after an Obsidian security guard told him he couldn’t enter. 

Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom discovers Obsidian Energy erected a gate on his traditional territory. Photo by Brandi Morin

Chief Laboucan-Avirom, like most Woodland Cree, grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping. He still gets out on the land as often as he can.

“We were just talking about stories of how we used to just camp wherever here. And now we’re being locked out of our traditional territories and places where we find medicine,” he said. 

“Obsidian is changing the dynamics of industry within our backyard and others. For Woodland Cree, we are hoping that they remove the injunctions on myself and my people, that they remove the injunctions of our local joint ventures and their livelihoods.”

During the press conference on May 20, Grand Chief Noskey demanded governments produce a bill of sale to First Nations territory.

“Where is that certificate of ownership, Canada? Where is the certificate of ownership, province? Right now, they’re just brokering deals with industry at the expense of our lands, our resources and just leaving their contaminants behind. They’re greedy for money and it is obvious.”

When it comes to First Nations’ rights to traditional territories outside of reserve boundaries that were never ceded or surrendered, Chief Laboucan-Avirom wants Obsidian to take lessons on Indigenous rights and sovereignty. 

“It’s been very intrusive what Obsidian is doing to us, but it’s also showcasing to the world that there has to be better ways to get work done,” he said. 

“I do understand that there is a need for resources to be in the global market. I think it actually might make the world a better place. I think Canada needs to do a better job of getting investors into this country, but (they need to) work with the First Nations in partnership to get that done. We take responsibility for our destiny. We have our own right to our own self-determination, and that is definitely different than what others might assume for us.” 

The conflict with Obsidian has been brewing for a while, he said. It started as far back as two years ago when the Woodland Cree learned Obsidian was planning to drill 200 more wells on the First Nation’s territory.

“This has been an accumulation of many different circumstances. This company is saying, ‘Hey, we don’t gotta work with the locals’, but I’m saying, ‘Hey, you should work with the locals. You don’t have to, but you should.’ It’s the right thing to do.” 

Unusual alliances
Dustin Lambert, of MDP Oilfield Services Ltd. in Peace River, supports the Woodland Cree in their stance against Obsidian Energy. Photo by Brandi Morin

The Woodland Cree have the backing of many area oil and gas contractors. It’s unusual, if not unprecedented, for non-Indigenous industry owners to support First Nations asserting their rights. Some contractors have parked their semi trucks and heavy equipment at the blockade, despite the risk of being blacklisted by Obsidian. 

Dustin Lambert, of MDP Oilfield Services Ltd. in Peace River, has been regularly visiting the Woodland Cree traditional camp blockade. He says he’s concerned he’ll be losing out on potential work too, because Obsidian brought in contractors from central “Alberta” instead of hiring local ones. 

“I think it’s a good thing for the community to stand against the oil companies when they try to take from the communities and not work with the community,” said Lambert.

“Obsidian has work, but they want to bring in large outside contractors. As I understand, in Canada, we’re free to work in all areas. However, when you have local contractors, they should have the first opportunity. We work directly with the Woodland Cree. I’ve worked with these guys on and off for pretty much my whole life, and I went to school with them.”

Janice Makokis, an Indigenous scholar and member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in Treaty 6, said Obsidian is using long-standing colonial tactics against the Woodland Cree. She explained that the understanding of First Nations who signed treaties was often quite different from settler governments. 

“When our ancestors and the people in Treaty 8 entered into a treaty more than 100 years ago, there was an understanding that the parties were both sovereign entities with unextinguished title to the lands,” said Makokis in a Zoom interview.

“It was two sovereigns and the Indigenous side of that party understood that they were not giving up anything, including the land, and resources of the lands. And almost immediately after treaty-making happened, the Indian Act was set in play by the federal government, which corralled our people onto these small parcels of land referred to now as reserves, and they weren’t meant to be where we would be corralled.”

Janice Makokis, an Indigenous scholar and member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation. Submitted photo

Makokis explained how upon signing treaties First Nations believed they’d have full access to lands outside of the reserves for hunting, fishing, trapping and other activities to maintain their livelihoods. 

“There’s a significant misunderstanding between our people’s understanding of the treaty and the Crown governments and industry’s understanding of what that is,” she said. “And I think that’s where we see these conflicts happening on the land. We’re still exercising our inherent treaty rights as we understood them when our ancestors made that treaty.”

Governments and industry interpret the treaties as giving them the right to freely access, destroy and profit off Indigenous traditional territories, which is convenient, she said. 

“It benefits them to continue to oppress and use colonial laws and legal instruments such as injunctions or through the courts to advance their interests in the name of the public good or the good of the company and for economic development reasons, whatever that is.”

Makokis added the “public interest,” factor is flawed because the interests of First Nations are not considered. She noted since the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in 2015 governments and industry are slowly starting to consider Indigenous rights in land disputes, but true change must start at the top. 

“That willingness has to come from the senior leadership of the company for it to trickle down within that company. They need to be trained to understand Indigenous peoples’ history, rights, treaty, UNDRIP, all of these legal instruments that are now being implemented or suggested to be included within government policy.”

The blockade continues
A protest camp has been set up against Obsidian Energy’s project on Woodland Cree territories. Photo by Brandi Morin

Woodland Cree members are set up along the Walrus industry access road about 40 minutes east of Peace River. It’s a key access route utilized by Obsidian which has now been rendered non-operational. 

They are well-equipped for the long haul if need be. They’ve utilized these lands for millennia. But they were forced out of their traditional territories decades ago when oil was discovered here. The band was made to settle on allotted reserve sites about an hour away from the blockade site. However, they say they’ve never abandoned their original homelands.

“It’s awesome when you can do a lot of things on the traditional land, we hunt, we trap,” said Frank Whitehead, elected Woodland Cree councillor of 16 years. He pointed to the forest next to the camp where multiple rabbit snares were set. 

On this day, the trappers have caught five. Jerome Courtorielle, a young hunter and trapper, finished skinning the catch and laid them out on a wooden rack to smoke over a fire. 

“This is our hunting grounds. But what’s happening with the wildfires too, is not helping us. All (these) companies are now coming in. It’s just destroying our livelihood,” explained Whitehead. 

He’s witnessed industry come and go over the years, as well as governments that make promises and break them. He says foreign companies are even more of a problem.

Jerome Courtorielle, a young hunter and trapper, is practicing his culture at the camp. Photo by Brandi Morin
Courtorielle releasing a fresh catch from one of his snares near the Woodland Cree camp. Photo by Brandi Morin

“I don’t think they know what we’re doing here. That it’s First Nations people. When somebody else is not from this country, that’s not right because they don’t know. And we tried talking to them. We tried teaching them. We tried everything, but it’s still not enough,” he said.

“People won’t understand how we live here, and they need to understand us because we’re one of the first people that lived in this territory a long time ago. They don’t know what’s going on and they need to know. They need to listen to us.”

The Peace River oil sands are sometimes referred to as the mini-Fort McMurray of Alberta. Fort McMurray is the extractive economic engine of Canada, pumping out multi-billions of dollars in annual revenue. The Peace River oil sands are also rich in black gold deposits and much of these oil reserves are untapped. There’s a ton of money to be made here. But development goes hand in hand with the destruction of the land, and Whitehead is concerned. 

“My heart cries for Mother Nature a lot of times because Mother Nature is the one that gave us this land and gives us everything that we should respect. We should have no garbage, everything should be cleaned up afterward. And sometimes their (projects) are not cleaned up. that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”

Whitehead has also witnessed a massive transformation of Woodland Cree’s traditional territory in recent years. 

“A long time ago, we used to call moose in September over here,” he said. “But these days you have a lot of pump jacks, so when you’re calling a moose here you can’t even hear it because the pump jacks are the only ones that you can hear, scaring them outta here. I even see animals going away too because they’re scared of everything that’s happening.”

 Earthquakes and environmental issues
Woodland Cree Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom said it’s outrageous Obsidian is seeking to have him arrested. Photo by Brandi Morin

There’s another big problem caused by industry — earthquakes. The Alberta Energy Regulator found Obsidian responsible for causing a series of quakes near its worksites in 2022 after the company injected industrial wastewater deep into the ground.

One of the earthquakes was the largest ever recorded in “Alberta’s” history — it scored a local magnitude of 5.6. 

Obsidian has denied it had anything to do with the earthquakes, and is appealing the AER ruling.

But the memory of the big quake is seared into the minds of all here, including Chief Laboucan-Avirom.

“We felt it. it was shaking houses,” recalled the chief with a wide-eyed look. “I think there were four or five tremors. That day I had elders calling me. I’d just dropped my kids off at school, my daughters were calling me from Peace River. It was definitely unexpected and felt by everybody. Not just me and my family, but the farmers nearby, industry. I was scared for my children.”

All who felt it were shaken up, because earthquakes don’t happen in the region. 

“We wondered what the repercussions would be. Will it rupture pipes? Will it rupture foundational stuff? Will it hurt old homes? Will it contaminate groundwater? Will there be more?” 

Woodland Cree Councillor Joe Whitehead Jr. has been helping oversee the blockade camp. He’s a former grand chief of Treaty 8, grand chief of the Kee Tas Kee Now Tribal Council and chief of the Woodland Cree.

Joe held up his cell phone to show a photo of his 18-month-old daughter wrapped up in his Woodland Cree custom-made jersey. He said it breaks his heart to be away from his family to maintain the blockade, but they are the reason why he’s doing it. 

Woodland Cree Councillor Joe Whitehead Sr. Photo by Brandi Morin

“This is what my daughter does every time I go home,” said Joe, proudly looking at the photo of his dark-haired, chubby-cheeked daughter through teary eyes. 

“She takes this shirt and covers herself up… this is for our people. And, the people need to know that we are fighting for our kids and their kids for the future. So they don’t keep fighting.”

He’s angry because Obsidian is circumventing its duty to consult and work with the Nation.

“The trust factor for our First Nation is really low with industry because of Obsidian. Obsidian is to blame for everything that’s happening today where the cops are staging over there,” he motioned to where the RCMP have set up a command station at the local agriculture hall about 15 kilometres west. 

“To come in here and try to remove people that are from the land and believe in the land… we are teaching kids here today, we’ll still keep doing that and we will be here forever.”

Joe believes the Woodland Cree’s stand against industry is game-changing, and passionately calls on allies to follow suit.

“This is our fight together. It’s just not Woodland Cree’s. It’s us all across Turtle Island… by any means necessary in terms of trying to educate Canada on who First Nations people are,” he said.

“There was a gate put up over here. Our treaty states that all gates shall be open in case of hunger. But what they did was they put up a gate and blocked our chief, and that’s wrong. And I’m mad today because of that. This is going to escalate if the government doesn’t step in and if Obsidian doesn’t come to the table. 

“What does that say to other industries? That they can start putting up gates where we hunt, trap, fish? We will be idle no more, we will do what we have to do as a nation to protect the treaty rights of our people that were signed in 1899. And I believe that industry needs to wake up in terms of what they’re doing… you need to come to the table and not give us lies and lies after lies. You need to be honest right now.”

Whitehead says he’s willing to be arrested if it comes to that, alongside his chief. 

The RCMP can enforce the injunction at any time. But they have not done so yet, and have “no interest in enforcing it at this point, as we’re still looking for a peaceful solution,” according to Corporal Matthew Howell. RCMP liaison members on the ground said they’re monitoring the area to “ensure the safety and security of all,” adding they “have to be prepared for anything that might happen.”

Part of their reluctance may be rooted in the sheer size of the blockade, which on some days counts more than 100 participants, and the local support the Woodland Cree have. Any raid would require hundreds of officers, and could have far-reaching consequences. 

An ‘uprising in the making’
Irina Ceric. Submitted photo

Irina Ceric is an assistant professor in the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Law. She has extensively studied injunctions granted against activists and Indigenous groups, and co-wrote “‘The Legal Billy Club’: First Nations, injunctions, and the Public Interest,” an academic paper published in 2023. 

She said she was not surprised the injunction was granted to Obsidian. 

“Research that I’ve participated in makes it very clear that resource extraction companies such as Obsidian have a very strong record of success in obtaining injunctions against First Nations and Indigenous groups, even on traditional territories, even on treaty territories,” she said. 

When courts issue injunctions that favour corporations, the existence of Indigenous treaties or constitutionally-protected rights are not taken into consideration, added Ceric. Corporations petition the courts stating their work is being impeded or their projects will be “irreparably harmed,” (meaning they will lose a lot of money), and the conflict needs to be resolved at a later time. In the meantime, an injunction is needed to remove the blockaders. The courts tend to take those arguments seriously, she said. 

“What is really unusual is Obsidian going back to court to attempt to have a sort of second procedure to issue this arrest warrant (for Chief Laboucan-Avirom). That’s unnecessary on a legal level. Once a court order is issued, there will be an enforcement order within that injunction that says to, in this case, it’s the RCMP, ‘you can enforce this order.’”

The injunction gives police the power to arrest and hold in custody (if necessary) anyone who violates it. So the RCMP already have the power to arrest Chief Laboucan-Avirom, should they choose to use it. 

“What I’m seeing here is an attempt to sidestep the discretion of the police and attempt to have a court issue an unnecessary, and I think highly unusual, arrest warrant,” added Ceric. 

Arresting a treaty chief in his traditional territories is a dangerous proposition, and if carried out could see the conflict explode and spread into other jurisdictions, Grand Chief Noskey said at the press conference. 

“For Obsidian to start making those recommendations to the province and even to the courts and even to try to force the RCMP to do something… RCMP officers were present at the treaty, on the day of making the treaty. And they were here for our protection against foreigners that would intrude in our way of life,” he said.

“Obsidian, you’re intruding without talking to the people, without doing a proper process… when it comes to jailing our people, our chiefs, I think you’ll see a lot of chiefs in jail, and hopefully the court systems or the institutions can hold all of the Canadian First Nations people in jail because I think this is an uprising in the making.”

Treaty 8 chiefs came to Peace River to meet with the Woodland Cree and express solidarity. Photo by Brandi Morin

Grand Chief Noskey went on to call for the province to step in. 

“Remove the Aboriginal Consultation Office, Alberta Energy Regulator and the red tape ministry. Because these agencies and ministries do not honor the Supreme Court ruling that they do need to consult. Premier Danielle Smith and cabinet, we call upon you to meet with Woodland Cree First Nation leadership and Treaty 8 chiefs to establish the table for revenue-sharing talks with the province.”

Other treaty chiefs at the press conference chimed in with a warning, such as Driftpile Cree Nation Chief Dwayne Laboucan, who said he’s ready to take action. 

“It’s pretty simple from our end. If you’re going to come and make a livelihood in our lands, we must too. That’s our message to oil and gas. You’re not going to come in here and start bullying us. We’re here to stay, and we’re ready to fight.”

Ultimately, changing the status quo of inequities faced by First Nations communities is what’s at stake, said Chief Laboucan-Avirom.

“Just look at the GDP that comes out of our land. From the forest sector, the oil and gas sector, even before for the longest time, billions, hundreds of millions come out of this land,” he said.

“Why are we as First Nations still administrating poverty? We shouldn’t have to fight this hard for prosperity. Treaty 8 is unceded territory. We’re a country within a country. But people don’t want to see us lift ourselves up. I’m not looking for a handout. I’m looking to just provide, to protect my people with our own ways and our own rights.”

The chief stressed that his nation wants to participate in the workforce, develop mega-projects and be owners of their resources. He’s determined to set an example.

“You’re damn right, it is about money.  People shouldn’t be living in poverty. We deserve equalization payments. Our kids need a brighter future,” he said.

“Seven out of ten of us are going to die sooner than the rest of Canada’s population. Seven out of ten of our kids are in CFS care. That’s because of poverty. So how is this greed? It’s the other way around where a greedy American company wants to come dictate (terms) in our land. I don’t think so.”

The chief pointed out there are no words in the Cree language for “cede” or “surrender,” and it’s not something he’s planning to do if a warrant is issued for his arrest. 

“It’s outrageous. I think the courts also understand the repercussions that that would have and the precedents that would have (if I was arrested),” he said.

“And I don’t think that is a responsible way forward or a respectful way forward. That’s been the issue all along. To move forward, whether it’s with industry, government or even family, you have to have integrity, understanding, respect and (you have to) respond.


Brandi Morin is an award-winning Cree/Iroquois/French journalist from Treaty 6 territories. Her work has appeared in National Geographic, Al Jazeera English, the Guardian and the New York Times.

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