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First Nations involved in energy sector determined to share wealth and see others thrive

Western Indigenous groups positioning themselves to take equity stake in pipeline and transmission projects

When First Nations benefit from big natural resource projects, entire regions across the country seem to thrive.

In the last 10 to 15 years, Indigenous communities in Western Canada have made great strides in participating in the oil and gas sector. Now they're poised to take the next step, to take an equity stake in massive infrastructure projects, like pipeline developments.

But they need Ottawa to remove some historical barriers and free up access to capital that has constrained Indigenous prosperity and prevented them from participating in industry on an equal footing.

"The Indian Act has not allowed First Nations to prosper in Canada," said Delbert Wapass, the former chief of Thunder Child First Nation in Saskatchewan, on a recent webinar – Where We Go From Here: Indigenous prosperity at a crossroads – hosted by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an Ottawa-based public policy think tank.

Wapass steers Project Reconciliation, an Indigenous-led organization of 340 First Nation and Métis communities that's out to buy a majority stake in the Trans Mountain Pipeline.

He was one of three prominent Indigenous leaders who shared their pragmatic thoughts, aspirational goals, inspirational stories and sense of optimism and frustration stemming from their involvement in the oil and gas sector.

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Western Canada First Nations involved in the energy sector are seeing a transformation in their communities as Indigenous people are exercising their treaty rights and converting them into opportunity.

To Wapass, his project's framework is about Indigenous people taking control of their destiny and future in restoring the nation-to-nation system of commerce First Nations once enjoyed prior to European settlement.

The more than 150-year-old Indian Act, Wapass said, was an ineffective government economic model for Indigenous people when the treaties were signed, never mind in 2020. First Nations weren't all given choice locations on where they were settled, he said, so when resource projects are developed in their territories, Indigenous people should be invited to take their rightful place at the boardroom table with decision-making influence to affect positive change.

Wapass said First Nations must be unencumbered in making decisions "at the speed of business" without having to rely on government funding sources. Through real commitments from allies in industry, there must be procurement and investment opportunities to help First Nations build capacity and "get us closer to independence and self-determination."

"We can realize these opportunities and begin managing wealth as opposed to continously managing poverty."

Wapass said Canadians are often asked to take sides in the energy debate of environmental protection and social responsibility versus economic growth.

To Wapass, they can go hand in hand, if development is done in a responsible way.

"They are inseparable," he said. "A strong economy depends on collective well-being. There is no bright future for Canada that fails to address Indigenous exclusion and inequality.

"Anything less risks leaving these issues and barriers intact," Wapass said. "It can't be a token opportunity. It has to be real. It has to be meaningful." 

In his travels, Wapass gets frustrated by the "divide and conquer" approach used by industry – and even among Indigenous people themselves – to shop a project from community to community, an unfair practice that leaves some communities on the sidelines.

"Don't plan it out and come back and negotiate IBAs (impact benefit agreements) and force a plan we had no input in.

"We all have to be in it together, we all have to be fair to one another, and we all have to understand the position where we're coming from."

Growing up in the Yukon in the 1960s, webinar moderator Ken Coates, a Munk Senior Follow in Aboriginal and Northern Canadian Issues, recalled it was "unheard of" that a First Nation person could be considered wealthy. Indigenous people were frozen out of natural resource development.

Decades later, Coates attended a large gathering in Fort McMurray where Fort MacKay's then-chief, Jim Boucher, introduced to the crowd of 400 some of the millionaires among his membership, all involved in servicing the oil and gas industry.

Many in the crowd, Coates said, were "not surprised but they were pleased. "Indigenous wealth was wealth for everybody."

In terms of what policy Ottawa needs to enact to solidify Indigenous engagement in the resource sectors, Mark Podlasly, a respected Indigenous economic development analyst, said access to capital remains a big challenge.

A member of Cooks Ferry First Nation in the interior of British Columbia, Podlasly is the economic policy director for the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, a group of 65 First Nations wanting to become equity owners in large infrastructure works like pipelines, transmission and rail lines.

Under the Indian Act, Indigenous communities and individuals can't use their land as collateral – since it's categorized as Crown assets – a constraint that non-Indigenous people wouldn't have to contend with.

Even if they could, Podlasly said it would run counter to their sense of communal ownership by leveraging their land and heritage "for a quarterly return on an infrastructure project."

He pointed to a highly successful Ontario model called the Aboriginal Loan Guarantee Program that allowed First Nations to get involved in transmission line projects.

Podlasly suggests the creation of a similar vehicle – an Indigenous Sovereign Wealth Fund – that allows First Nations to take money that flows from resource projects and manage that wealth to reinvest back in their communities.

It might provide a solution to Ottawa's long-standing policy of clawing back "own-source revenue," the monies collected by Indigenous government from resource projects, businesses or other sources.

Podlasly cited the example of his community of eight bands coming together to sign an impact benefit agreement with Canada's largest copper mine located within their traditional territory. Within six months, Ottawa attempted to claw back that money through reductions in transfer payments, saying they use that money to pay for essential government services.

"It defeats the purpose of a First Nation getting involved in with the private sector, if that's the case," he said.

All the speakers agreed having First Nations involved in major infrastructure projects is the means to an end in creating self-sufficient communities and reducing income inequities across Canada.

But don't expect First Nations to accept every oil and gas project if it might damage the land or destroys their culture.

"It's not going to happen," said Podlasly.

Expect a high level of interest by First Nations in reviewing every aspect of a project, in weighing the environmental ramifications with the long-term benefit to the communities.

"First Nations are not against development; we're in favour of smart development, development that matches the local economic (and) environmental needs of the nations. Canada is a great country. This will only make it stronger."

Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith agreed the potential environmental impact of development is always top of mind when assessing projects in their traditional territory in Kitimat, on the north coast of British Columbia.

Her nation is a strong supporter of the Coastal GasLink pipeline and LNG Canada's $40-billion mega-project, which has spurred a cultural revival and economic renaissance in her community.

Their strategy to build consensus begins with leadership fully educating themselves – and the community at large –on a given development and coming up with solutions that align everyone's interests on "what is acceptable" and what they envision for current and future generations.

The goal is to improve the quality of life in creating independent-minded members through training, education and industry job opportunities.

The Haisla also rely on the experiences of other British Columbia and Alberta Indigenous communities in assessing what they've done, the mistakes made, and the lessons learned, to determine whether a project is worth supporting.

Smith spoke of the "great atmosphere" in the communities with plenty of employment and contracting opportunities for Indigenous people from the Coastal Gas Link project.

But she cautioned it's been "no bed of roses" for band administrations in transitioning to the management of newfound resource wealth and the pains that growth brings to their communities.

"We want to be part of the economy. We want to improve lives of our people, We want the same standard when it comes to other parts of Canada. For far too long we've been sitting on the sidelines watching the development, watching the success."

Through an RBC on-reserve program, Smith said she's never seen so many mortgages move across the council table from members in their 20s and 30s looking to home ownership.

"It makes me so emotional that they're not dependent on us to provide solutions.

"Our people are finding solutions for themselves and providing roofs over their heads, vehicles in the driveways and they're travelling the world. It is absolutely great to see First Nations people succeed."

She measures progress through individual and inspirational success stories of members landing meaningful entry-level jobs and working their up through the ranks.

"When I get tired and stressed, it absolutely helps to see our people succeed."

Smith said participating in energy projects not only builds local wealth but has had a unifying effect in developing relationships and building alliances with other communities to tackle social issues.

It's enabled them to collectively pool their resources to hire professionals to address addiction, mental health and housing issues, and invest in local conservation projects, such as restoring declining salmon stocks in their rivers, a huge cultural staple.

"The LNG project brought us together."