Neil Young’s recent concerts to raise money and generate publicity for protests against fossil fuels demonstrate a key fact about life in Canada – everybody is entitled to their opinion. It’s equally true, however, that everyone is not entitled to their own facts.
To understand the importance, value and challenges of oil-sands development and the industry’s relationship with Canada’s First Nations and other aboriginal peoples, there needs to be much more than inflammatory rhetoric from rock stars. As citizens, we need a broad understanding of the balanced suite of facts about industry’s benefits and risks, because facts provide the context people require for their own decisions.
An unavoidable fact about crude oil and natural gas is that it’s rarely found in places like Toronto or Calgary. Increasingly, it’s found in remote areas where Canada’s aboriginal people live, making them neighbours, collaborators, business partners and often friends with the industry.
Special envoy Douglas Eyford’s recent report to the Prime Minister on West Coast energy infrastructure highlighted some of the issues, opportunities and complexities regarding First Nations and development of Canada’s natural resources. From establishing mutually respectful, trusting relationships and ensuring that aboriginal people benefit from employment and business opportunities, to undertaking resource development in an environmentally sustainable manner, Mr. Eyford’s report got it about right. He is correct to observe that it isn’t sufficient for companies and communities to simply get together a few times a year at cultural events – real, substantive participation and engagement are required if we are to make progress together.
There are certainly barriers to collaboration between industry and First Nations, including barriers related to education and culture, unresolved land claims and differences about economic benefits and opportunities. However, what Mr. Young and David Suzuki fail to acknowledge is that – to the credit of First Nations, industry and governments – many successes have been achieved in the face of these challenges: jobs, contracts, cultural programs, infrastructure and deep, enduring relationships.
Oil-sands companies currently contract with aboriginal-owned businesses for upward of $1.3-billion a year in goods and services. And more than 1,700 aboriginal employees have permanent operations jobs in the oil sands. This is a significant benefit for First Nations in areas where economic development options may be limited.
To be clear, no one in industry begrudges the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation or any other aboriginal community for representing their interests. And there’s no question that aboriginal issues must be addressed if Canada is to have timely access to markets for its energy production – timely access that benefits all Canadians.
However, fostering conflict and divisiveness through off-oil rhetoric and ignoring the many examples of mutual benefits and shared value is not constructive. It doesn’t contribute to long-term solutions for consumers and it doesn’t provide much-needed solutions for First Nations. Further, it tends to undermine the substantive relationships that have been developed between oil-sands companies and aboriginal businesses, and the spirit of the many socio-economic agreements between individual companies and First Nations, including those with Fort Chipewyan.
From coast to coast, the majority of Canadians support continued responsible development of the oil sands, according to public-opinion polls conducted by independent third parties for CAPP.
That’s in part because this important resource is developed with respect for aboriginal peoples and stakeholders who live and work nearby, with jobs and economic benefits across Canada, and with a strong, continuous focus on reducing the industry’s environmental impact.
Canadians have a long history of developing solutions to challenging issues through innovation. The work is ongoing and our industry welcomes new ideas so that we can continue to improve our performance.
But far too often, the chorus to significantly slow or stop development – not really much of a contribution to the serious dialogue – comes from anti-fossil-fuel activists, not scientists, not regulators and definitely not consumers.
There is a better path forward – responsible oil-sands development founded on collaborative engagement benefiting all Canadians, particularly aboriginal communities living near the oil sands. We need constructive dialogue based on fact, not the divisiveness being fostered by Mr. Young’s tour.
Dave Collyer is president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.