Jim Boucher, chief of the Fort McKay First Nation near Fort McMurray, hasn't been shy over the years about taking oil sands developers to task over their environmental practices.
Staying true to form this week, the colourful leader implored oil companies at an annual industry gathering to celebrate industry-leading environmental, safety and social performance to get serious about cleaning up tailings ponds associated with oil mining operations.
"They are a blight," he said at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers' event here on Wednesday, speaking off the cuff after losing his prepared remarks.
But Chief Boucher also highlighted his band's financial successes from the oil sands, which transformed the Fort McKay First Nation into one of Canada's aboriginal business powerhouses, and expressed gratitude for its strong relationship with industry.
The 700-member community, 65 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, owns the Fort McKay Group of Companies LP. With $100-million in annual revenue, it employs 4,000 people - aboriginal and non-aboriginal - and provides services to many of the top oil sands developers.
The Fort McKays could be oil barons in their own right. Their reserve in the heart of the Athabasca oil sands basin sits on top of two billion barrels of oil.
Chief Boucher said the community has done well so far providing services to oil sands developers, as reflected by its "really good" financial situation, full employment and programs such as child and elder care and high school long-distance learning.
The Fort McKays are a prime example of the mixed views among aboriginals about resource development.
While some First Nations leaders from Canada and the United States united to protest oil sands pipelines on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, others were working to upgrade skills, push for equity stakes and build businesses to partner in projects.
But Chief Boucher, 57, said the best approach is to "take the good with the bad.
"There is a lot of the good side picture with respect to resource development, and I think the people have not been engaged sufficiently to be able to contribute," he said.
And reaping the good takes time.
For the Fort McKay nation, involvement in the oil sands began in the mid-1980s and had to do with the loss of its traditional way of life, based on hunting and trapping.
Under pressure from activists not unlike the environmental organizations that are now seeking to shut down the oil sands, the European Parliament implemented a ban on fur imports that devastated the economy of the people of Canada's North.
"The market for our furs dried up. Prices dropped. So all across the country, and in Northern Canada, aboriginal people lost a livelihood," Chief Boucher said. "We had a choice: Going on welfare, or work. And we felt that it was necessary for us to get into the mainstream economy and fully participate so that our people would have an opportunity to make a living."
The Fort McKays, of Cree and Dene lineage, started with a janitorial contract, ploughed profits back into the business, and now provide a vast range of services in heavy equipment operations, warehouse logistics, roads and grounds maintenance, bulk fuel and lube delivery, environmental services and land leasing operations.
Chief Boucher said building successful enterprises took a lot of patience. Skills had to be learned and oil companies persuaded that the Fort McKays were worthwhile partners.
But today, "our people are trained, they are becoming more skilled, they are becoming trades people, they have become managers," he said.
The publicity-shy chief has not spent a lot of time talking about the Fort McKay's successes in the broader First Nations community, preferring instead to focus on his band, but he said he understands why so many fellow aboriginals are opposed to resource development.
The federal government has failed to acknowledge their rights over resources, and also their right to have a say over how development is carried out, he said.
"People feel that in order for them to be engaged and to be valued with respect to discussions of what is happening on their lands they need to be full partners with Canada," he said. "Canada has not stepped up to the plate with respect to dealing with the First Nations on a treaty issue basis, and they avoid having this discussion and it's not contributing to a healthy economic development situation."
The unhappiness has led to opposition to major pipeline projects and demands for revenue-sharing.
Recognizing there is a need for solutions, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed a special envoy this week, Vancouver lawyer Douglas Eyford, to investigate why First Nations are so opposed to energy infrastructure projects and to come up with proposals to increase their participation in resource development.
While industry has been criticized for failing to share long-term benefits with First Nations, CAPP president Dave Collyer said it's already doing a lot by offering them jobs, business development and even equity stakes.
"Our view is that shutting down pipelines and curtailing development doesn't work in their interest any more than anybody else's interest," he said.
Alison Redford, the Alberta premier, said the province understands the importance of economic partnership and consultation with First Nations and wants to do more.
"I think there is a more constructive way to deal with these issues rather than protest," she said, adding: "They have been quite muted in Alberta, because we have had strong engagement."
For the Fort McKay band, the next big leap is to become an oil sands producer, and it periodically reviews its options. But its preference is to wait until technology has progressed so the environmental impact can be held to a minimum.
"Right now our intent is to leave that to the future generations," Chief Boucher said.
"It will be their legacy."
Credit: Claudia Cattaneo; Financial Post