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CBC News

Vern’s Mountain Standoff: One Local Man’s Fight Against a Foreign Coal Billionaire

Armed with determination and community support but no legal funds, Vern Emard faces off against a foreign coal company run by Australia’s richest person

It’s a tale as old as time. David versus Goliath. A determined local battling a wealthy foreign corporation.

In this case, it’s an Australian coal company doing its best to move local people off their land to build a new coal mine.

It is a proposal that just won’t die. 

You probably remember when Jason Kenney’s government opened up coal mining on Alberta’s Eastern Slopes in 2020.

The Alberta government initially supported letting a deluge of corporate entities run by the parent company Hancock Prospecting mine coal on Grassy Mountain, among other areas.

But the public pushed back

Citing concerns about huge clean-up bills, ruined water sources, and, besides a handful of temporary jobs, almost no financial incentive for Albertans, a wide variety of people voiced their opposition to the proposal.

Local landowners, municipal leaders, the tourism industry, scientists, ranchers, celebrities and everyday Albertans came down on the plans to mine with an iron fist.

Through their efforts, the Grassy Mountain project was rejected by regulators in 2021, followed by an order from Alberta’s Energy Minister in 2022 that “no new applications” for coal exploration be accepted.

It was an issue that was done and dusted. 

A win for the people!

Activists fighting coal mining  in Maycroft in March 2021 | Lorraine Hjalte | CBC News

Back from the Dead?

Gina Rinehart | CEO Magazine

But like many beasts of legend, this one has many heads.

The defeated Hancock Prospecting morphed a new head, a company named Northback Holding.  

Northback’s website has little info but links back to Hancock Prospecting. Gina Rinehart is the key player behind these companies. These names may not mean much to Albertans, but they are a big deal in Australia.   

Ms. Rinehart is Australia’s richest person. She is estimated to be one of the ten wealthiest women in the world, and Forbes ranks her as the 57th richest human, worth $26.7 Billion. 

The new company has dusted off the rejected plan and decided to try for a Grassy Mountain takeover round two (or round three? It’s hard to keep track).

But the Australian company seems to keep forgetting how stubborn Albertans are.

They’ve underestimated how much we Albertans hate foreigners coming in and controlling our resources. 

David vs Goliath or Vern vs Gina?

One Albertan, in particular, has been grinding the heels of his boots deep into the ground.

Vern Emard is 62 years old and has lived up Grassy Mountain Road for thirty-plus years.

He has a beautiful, if rugged, property that Northback Holdings has been trying its darndest to get him to give up. 

But he’s not budging.

“It’s my home. It’s where I live and breathe,” he told CBC News. “I teach my kids, my grandkids, about the land.”

Gesturing toward the peak of Grassy Mountain, he refers to it as so much more than land.

“This is me. Everybody knows this is Vern.”

Vern’s been offered a pretty penny to move. According to Northback Holdings, they’ve offered Ernard “100 times” his property value if he will sell.

Ernard and other landowners of the area disagree with the company’s claimed offer. They hired a professional appraiser.  – but the dollars wouldn’t matter to Ernard regardless.

“It’s non-replaceable, in my books,” he said. “Money cannot replace where I’m living.”

Grassy Mountain Area | Alberta Wilderness Association

A Different Kind Of Blockade?

A cash purchase isn’t the only method Northback Holdings has used to try and sway residents to give up their properties.

Grassy Mountain Way Road is the only access for most properties in the area.

The concrete block that prevented access to the Grassy Mountain Road | Vern Emard | CBC News

The land the road runs through was bought by the company in 2015.

Northback Holdings installed a locked gate and, after handing out a key to each landowner, warned them that the road may be closed entirely in the future.

If people can’t access the road, many will be effectively blocked from getting to their properties – Ernard included.

In January 2023, the company placed a concrete block behind the main gate, completely blocking access for a brief time, which left everyone unable to get to or from their homes.

Citing “safety and efficiency” as the reasoning behind blocking access, the coal mining company’s PR team claimed Emard had “conducted unapproved and unsafe snow-clearing activities.”

Realistically, they were trying to foil Ernard’s attempts to make the gates redundant, as he’d gone and printed many more keys and messed with the locks out of spite.

The Australian company claimed the concrete was intended “to discourage and prevent vehicle passage on the road.” They said it was needed because of  the “previous history with this individual vandalizing Riversdale gates and locks,” 

It certainly “discouraged” people from getting up the road that week, but the move seems to be backfiring in the long term.

A Small Win

Emard applied for an injunction against the blocked gate, which a judge approved, forcing Northback to give him temporary access to the road.

The matter is still yet to be heard in court, with a date set for May 2024, which will lead to a more concrete decision.

Ernard certainly has the support of friends and neighbours on his side. 

But with no funds to pay for a lawyer, he’ll rely on online research and outside advice to steer his arguments.

Neighbours Supporting Vern

Bill Trafford, who previously represented local landowners as an Alberta’s Coal Policy Committee member, thinks it’s preposterous that the government is even considering Northback’s proposal to mine Grassy Mountain.

Trafford says the way the Smith government plays with ‘loopholes’ to support foreign coal mining companies goes against the wishes of most Albertans and the efforts of those living in the area.

The location of coal exploration on Grassy Mountain

Trafford finds the Australian company forcing locals like Ernard to go through all this hassle and stress mind-boggling.

“The hurtful part is the provincial government as a whole — the cabinet and the caucus — all accepted our recommendations,” he said. 

“[Rejecting new applications to mine Grassy Mountain] was the No. 1 recommendation.”

Everyone, including Trafford, thought the fight was over.

As repetitive as this plot is, Trafford is just hoping it has a similar ending.

As long as the Alberta government continues to entertain coal mining companies’ new applications, Albertans are set to fight back.

“It is tough fighting these guys,” said Trafford. “And he [Vern Ernard] is fighting these guys on his own.”

Well, maybe not… the fight against new coal mines on the Eastern Slopes isn’t going away, and Albertans are banding together for the next round in the struggle.

Vern might have more allies than he realizes!

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