Not all First Nations oppose pipelines
At Calgary's Pipeline Gridlock conference, First Nations oil and gas producers dicussed the importance of balancing the environment and the economy
by Michael Ganley
In late September, a coalition of First Nations from Canada and the U.S. signed an agreement to oppose the development of the oil sands and the transportation of crude – by pipeline, rail or tanker – across their traditional territory. The signing ceremony, carried out simultaneously at press conferences in Vancouver and Montreal, garnered loads of attention from an obliging media.
Receiving considerably less attention was a gathering two weeks later entitled Pipeline Gridlock, organized by the Indian Resource Council. The IRC, headquartered on Tsuu T’ina territory south of Calgary, represents First Nations oil and gas producers. Dozens of chiefs and indigenous representatives gathered in Calgary, accompanied by representatives of government, industry and civil society.
The tenor of the conference was one of balance between environmental protection and economic development. Joe Dion is a hereditary chief of the Kehwin Cree Nation and the chairman of Frog Lake Energy Resources, which is owned by the Frog Lake First Nation east of Edmonton and has been producing oil and gas for more than a decade. These days, Dion is promoting the First Nations National Energy Strategy, a proposal signed by nine First Nations. In its preamble, the strategy “holds mankind accountable for sustaining the earth’s ability to provide for and to protect all of its inhabitants,” and states that indigenous Canadians are “the Earth’s environmental stewards.” But it also seeks to get pipelines built. “I believe it’s a big step being made by the top oil-producing First Nations in this country to meet the prime minister half way in reconciling the pipeline gridlock that’s taking place,” Dion said.
The way forward is not simple. Several of the chiefs spoke of taking flak from their people for attending. “ ‘How can you be Indian?’ ” Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said he was asked by some of his constituents. “ ‘How can you do this?’ ” But they persist.
Nor will it be business-as-usual for industry. Several people spoke of the need for equity positions in new developments that cross their territory, and of the need for revenue sharing. There was talk of “indigenous licence” and of the need, in some cases, for First Nations to conduct their own environmental assessments, above and beyond anything done by federal or provincial agencies.
But this was not obstructionism. The First Nations represented have the same interest as other producers in getting their product to market for the best possible price, meaning greater market access – pipelines – than is currently in place.
Another important consideration is the fact that greater First Nations control of natural resources will help alleviate the socio-economic problems that plague so many communities. Dion has seen it work in Frog Lake. “There has been a wealth of revenue generated for the community in the form of royalties, which in turn has been used to build roads, some 150 to 175 houses, and has been spent on education and that kind of thing,” he says. And it’s been done with self-generated revenue rather than handouts from government.
The leaders at the conference spoke frequently and passionately about the need to protect the environment. Nobody can take the moral high ground from them. But they also spoke of the need for wealth generation for their people and of the role oil and gas development can play in that, and their voices deserve to be heard.