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Teck oil sands project splits Canada's indigenous people, poses challenge for Trudeau

WINNIPEG, Manitoba (Reuters) - A proposed Canadian oil sands mine has split the country’s indigenous people, compounding the challenges facing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government as it decides whether to approve the project.

FILE PHOTO: Visitors pass a logo of Teck Resources Ltd mining company during the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) annual convention in Toronto, Ontario, Canada March 4, 2019. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

Teck Resources Ltd would build the C$20.6 billion ($15.76 billion) Frontier mine 110 kilometers (68 miles) north of Fort McMurray, Alberta, capable of eventually producing 260,000 barrels of crude oil per day. The mine, which would be one of the largest in Alberta’s oil sands, requires federal approval, even as the Trudeau government has promised to reduce Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

A decision is due by the end of February. Trudeau has set a priority of improving the country’s relations with indigenous people, many of whom live in poverty and sub-standard living conditions.

All 14 First Nations and Metis communities that would be directly affected have signed agreements with Teck, supporting Frontier in exchange for undisclosed economic benefits. But other indigenous groups staunchly oppose it, saying the impact of more oil moving across western Canada affects many more communities.

“We get zero benefits, but 100% of the environmental impacts,” said Chief Gerry Cheezie of Smith’s Landing First Nation headquartered in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. Cheezie spoke at a demonstration Monday outside the Vancouver office of Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who is weighing a decision on Frontier.

Smith’s Landing has noticed a decline in the area’s moose population as the oil sands have expanded, and its people avoid drinking or fishing from the Slave River, Cheezie said.

“We’re going to fight and we’re going to block this Teck mine from ever getting shovels in the ground,” said Kanahus Manuel, spokesman for Tiny House Warriors, a British Columbia-based indigenous activist group.

The government will consider factors including its net-zero pledge, the need for better relations with indigenous people and economic growth, said Sabrina Kim, Wilkinson’s press secretary.

If approved and Teck makes a final decision to build Frontier, it would start production in 2026.

Teck spent more than a decade meeting with indigenous communities before reaching agreements, company spokesman Chris Stannell said.

McMurray Metis, which includes 600 members, is one of them.

“We’re going to make sure our youth have every opportunity to go to work at jobs that are meaningful and pay well,” said Bill Loutitt, the community’s chief executive. “They’re going to be involved in the prosperity once the project starts.”

Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg, Manitoba; Editing by Cynthia Osterman

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