How to get First Nations onside with resource-related projects
The division and acrimony among First Nation communities over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project can mask the many examples of Indigenous communities that have reached agreements with resource companies.
For example, how many Canadians know that the experience of First Nations on liquefied natural gas (LNG) development has been extremely positive?
"While B.C. First Nations have been lukewarm on oil pipelines coming from Alberta, on LNG, there is palpable Indigenous disappointment that there isn't enough development," wrote National Post reporter Tristin Hopper in April.
If anything, governments and First Nations should look to the LNG deals that have been inked in British Columbia to see a working model of best practices.
The fact that B.C. First Nations are solidly behind LNG development shows that these communities don't simply react in knee-jerk opposition to resource deals. As many Indigenous leaders have said, they're not against all development. They just want the best deal possible for their communities. If First Nations are lining up behind LNG deals, we should look at those deals to see what they're offering to gain Indigenous support.
This also means that larger First Nation organizations don't necessarily represent the views of many communities. These organizations must stop acting as if they speak for communities engaging in resource development on their own lands.
Karen Ogen-Toews, former chief of the Wet'suwet'en First Nation in B.C. and now CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance, has been a vocal supporter of LNG development among native communities.
In an interview with BC Business, Ogen-Toews said she believes the problems stem from Indigenous misunderstandings of the growing resources industry. This misunderstanding, she said, starts in the halls of universities.
"I was a university student and know first-hand how easy it is to say no to everything," she said. "But saying no doesn't fix our houses or improve our health care."
A social worker by background, Ogen-Toews discovered as chief of her community that LNG projects were the best means to improve living conditions there and create a sustainable economy.
First, she had to provide balanced and fact-based information to her community members directly.
But environmentalist groups from outside the community that reject all resource developments, especially pipelines, complicated the narrative with self-interested, alarmist rhetoric.
First Nations on the front line are finding that non-Indigenous environmentalists are fair-weather friends to Indigenous communities. They're friendly only if those communities continue to oppose development.
Ogen-Toews was insistent that training be included in a deal, meaning that young natives - particularly men - receive experience for their training in skilled trades.
Resource deals with First Nations must be big on training dollars for the youth so these communities can give their members the dignity and pride of meaningful work. By helping build capacity and increase employment, these projects allow communities to invest in their own futures.
Young Indigenous men are a vast reservoir of untapped potential. And First Nation men who work find purpose in the lives, become better husbands and fathers, and avoid getting involved in crime or violence.
First Nation communities that receive equity or ownership stakes in these projects are much more likely to support them. B.C.'s Huu-ay-aht First Nations members voted 70 per cent in favour of developing and co-managing in an equity share agreement with Steelhead LNG in Vancouver Island's Sarita Bay.
The Northern Gateway pipeline project was deemed superior to the Kinder Morgan expansion because it offered First Nations along the proposed route 10 per cent equity stakes. Allan Adam, chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in the oil sands region of northern Alberta - once a very vocal critic - said he would support a pipeline that involved First Nation ownership.
First Nations will increasingly demand equity or ownership in any project to increase their sense that the project is in their best interests.
Governments and resource companies need to look at these successful resource agreements to see how to increase Indigenous support for much-needed projects.