‘They’re looking for a hand up not a hand out’ says Alberta Indigenous Relations minister on cutting environment program

A First Nation leader in Alberta is questioning the province’s decision to cut an environment program that helped First Nation communities go green.

The $57 million Indigenous Climate Leadership program was cut in Thursday’s budget – Jason Kenney’s first as a premier.

The program was created to help Indigenous communities develop renewable energy.

Rick Wilson, Alberta’s minister of Indigenous Relations, said the program that was cut wasn’t helping communities.

“When I went out to this summer, talking to stakeholders I heard a lot. They are looking for a hand up, not a hand out. And those initiatives were a hand out. So what we are looking at doing is real. My good friend, Willie Littlechild calls reconiciaction, not reconciliation.He said ‘Rick, I want you to look at reconciliaction.’”

But Wilton Littlechild, grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations says he’s he’s hopeful the Alberta government will replace the leadership program with something similar.

“I know that there was some training that had to be undertaken by our own people to be able to get themselves into a capacity of building as well,” said Littlechild.

“Now that that’s gone, what do they do? Do they seek other jobs?

Alberta’s former minister of Indigenous relations defends the program.

“More than 30 community groups, First Nations, Metis, Friendship Centres put up solar panels in the last few years under that program. So when you see a Community who says a program is successful by actually engaging in it and doing that things that result in good things for their Community, then you know that’s a program worth keeping,” said Richard Feehan. “And they just got rid of it. 100 per cent gone.

“For him to say that somehow this was a handout, as opposed to a program for preservation of the environment is appalling to me. As minister, he should be talking to and listening to Communities all across this province. I suggest he actually go out and visit them because when I went door to door and I talked to people, they talked always about the land. They talked about how important is to them and why they want to preserve it so they can pass it on.”

Littlechild says he wants to sit down to talk with the government and opposition.

“There are questions there that I want to raise but I think ideally, if I can sit with both of them at the same time, I think that would be the best,” he said.

Alberta is preparing to release details of its new climate plant and critics are wondering about funding cuts to environmental monitoring and greenhouse gas management already spelled out in last week’s budget.

“We will have diminished capacity,” said Marlin Schmidt, New Democrat environment critic. “We won’t know if we’re meeting environmental standards or not.”

Departmental business plans indicate the office of science and monitoring within Alberta Environment is to take a five per cent cut next year, to just under $74 million. That’s the office that oversees the overall impact of industrial development in the province, including the tarsands.

The office is to still receive a $50-million levy from industry specifically for tarsands monitoring.

The emissions management office is to take a 20 per cent cut by 2023. That office is partly responsible for measuring and verifying greenhouse gas emissions, as well as for checking compliance with other environmental regulations.

“All of those things are significantly diminished,” said Shannon Phillips, a New Democrat member of the legislature who was the former environment minister.

Alberta Environment spokeswoman Jess Sinclair said the emissions management cuts are related to the United Conservative Party’s new plan to cut carbon.

Sinclair also pointed to a $2-million increase in capital spending for scientific monitoring, most of it through an equipment donation from utility company Epcor.

“Science and environmental monitoring funding is in place so that Albertans can rest assured that their air, surface waters, groundwater, land, wildlife and fisheries are protected,” she wrote in an email Monday.

The budget also includes spending cuts at the agency responsible for approving and assessing energy development in the province. The Alberta Energy Regulator is to lose about 22 per cent of its budget.

“Reducing both environmental monitoring programs and our energy regulator capacity does not make us a world-class resource and environmental manager,” said Ben Israel, an analyst with the Pembina Institute, which is a clean-energy think tank.

The United Conservative government is currently examining the regulator’s operations.

Schmidt suggests Albertans will have to increasingly rely on industry self-reporting.

“I don’t think that’s their job,” he said. “It should be the government of Alberta who manages and reports on our climate change strategy.”

The province is to release details of its new climate change policy on Tuesday. The plan will not contain a carbon tax. But it is expected to impose a levy on large industrial emitters for every tonne of carbon that exceeds a regulatory benchmark.

The details of how that benchmark will be set and what the cost will be haven’t been announced, although most expect it to be $30 a tonne.

Earlier this month, the government told Environment Department employees that it was ending stand-alone offices for climate change and environmental monitoring.

Opposition members of the legislature warned at the time that the moves were a prelude to funding cuts.

-with files from The Canadian Press

Video Journalist / Edmonton

Chris Stewart has been in the media for 20 years. He has worked at CBC, Global and CTV as a news camera operator and editor. Chris joined APTN in 2012 in the Saskatoon Bureau and moved to APTN Edmonton bureau in 2015 as a Videojournalist.