If you relied on the headlines alone, you might conclude that the Indigenous peoples of Canada are squarely against oil and gas development. You would be wrong.
Headlines, by their nature, highlight crisis and conflict in simplified terms. But the debate over Indigenous support for resource development is highly nuanced. Readers must go beyond the headlines to understand what’s really going on.
A new Troy Media series by three accomplished leaders who either belong to, or work closely with, Indigenous communities in Canada will explore over the next three weeks the issues at play. Although this is far from a simple story, the news, for the most part, is very encouraging.
The writers acknowledge the tumultuous history in which First Nations communities were treated as less than equal partners by industry and government. Yet today – in the era of the Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) – old grievances are giving way to new opportunities.
First Nations communities are feeling a new sense of empowerment, and for the first time are stepping up as equal partners in major oil and gas projects, including the contentious Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. In fact, in many cases First Nations communities are ready and able to invest heavily in these projects so they can not only see them come to fruition, but also reap social and economic benefits that will last for generations.
But this is no Hollywood fantasy. Like all Canadians, First Nations people hold a variety of views on oil and gas development. In the case of Trans Mountain, for example, a number of Indigenous groups have opposed the project for a variety of reasons. One of the key issues is whether the federal government consulted and accommodated the comments of First Nations in good faith.
With the development of the duty to consult and accommodate, Indigenous peoples now have an important voice in resource development, argued Stephanie Latimer, an Edmonton lawyer who represented Alberta’s attorney general when it acted as as intervener in one recent hearing. The question at play? Whether Indigenous groups were meaningfully consulted during a new round of dialogue about the $10-billion project.
Latimer’s arguments highlight the complexities that often occur in such developments. She noted there is “ongoing lack of certainty” about what constitutes reasonable Crown consultation and accommodation in the context of complex, multi-phase projects like Trans Mountain.
What’s vital to understand, though, is the level of support for Trans Mountain. Forty-three First Nations and other Indigenous groups support the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline, while only 12 signalled opposition in the Tsleil-Waututh litigation. On July 2, the Supreme Court of Canada denied an application to hear an appeal from the Squamish Nation, Tsleil-Waututh Nation and Coldwater Indian Band which have fought the Trans Mountain project, partly on the basis of inadequate consultation.
In some cases, opposition has been rooted at least partly in the desire to get a better deal for First Nations communities. That’s in part why the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group stepped forward last year and offered to purchase 51 percent of the project from the federal government. WIPG is a coalition of 55 First Nations located along the Trans Mountain route in British Columbia.
The group is supported by Project Reconciliation, which draws a straight line from pipeline development to long-overdue economic reconciliation for Indigenous Canadians. Its website has this to say:
“Any true reconciliation requires action, not tokenism. It is time for our People to sit at the table as true partners, with direct influence on decisions that impact our land and waters to build a brighter future for our children. … As partners and rightful custodians of our lands and waters, we can set a higher bar for environmental standards and monitoring. Our traditional knowledge and wisdom are needed to protect our Mother Earth for future generations.”
It’s a powerful message.
As both the Truth and Reconciliation and UNDRIP documents testify, reaching authentic reconciliation with Indigenous communities means a great deal more than endlessly saying, “Sorry.” It means treating those communities as truly equal partners and opening the doors to their full participation in nation-building projects. And it means giving those communities a stake in the risks and the full rewards of such development.
How do we define meaningful consultation? What does economic reconciliation look like?
Watch for the insights from our three authorities in the coming Mondays. You’ll come away with a renewed sense of optimism for the relationship between Canada and its diverse Indigenous communities.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.