Robert Merasty is the executive director of the Indigenous Resource Network and former chief of Flying Dust First Nation.
With the continuing global energy crisis, Canada is looking at ways to fast-track resource development infrastructure. For example, the federal government’s recent fiscal update provided $1.28-billion to improve its response time in assessing major projects.
While this could help Ottawa in its regulatory approval process, there’s still a piece missing: The industry needs more support from Indigenous communities if it wants to move projects along quicker.
The federal government has said multiple times that its duty to consult with Indigenous communities affected by mega-projects does not equal to their having a veto. But time and again, Indigenous opposition has been a major force in stopping or delaying energy infrastructure, to the extent that Canada has been seen as a place where it simply cannot be built.
But it doesn’t need to be that way. What Indigenous people seek is not a freeze on all resource development, but rather a seat at the table – a rightful share of the bounty from our lands and a say over the decisions that affect us. We seek ownership stakes in the projects in our communities.
If Ottawa helps us get there, it might find that getting energy projects over the line to be a lot easier.
Indigenous resistance to infrastructure such as the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion has amounted to legal challenges. What is not often talked about is that the pipeline project has signed 69 agreements with 81 Indigenous communities collectively worth more than $650-million. Now, organizations such as the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group are working toward purchasing the project.
But at the same time, in pursuing stakes in energy infrastructure, Indigenous communities have long been set back by a lack of access to capital. This issue was faced by some communities in British Columbia when they tried to pursue an equity stake in the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. They did not raise the capital in time.
If there was a government program that guaranteed loan financing for Indigenous communities in this exact situation, this challenge could be avoided. There are provincial examples of such initiatives that are operating effectively.
For example, the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation provides the necessary financing mechanisms for Indigenous communities in that province. The AIOC has had many success stories, including the monumental Enbridge agreement between 23 First Nation and Métis communities and their 11.57-per-cent interest in seven Enbridge pipelines in Alberta’s Athabasca region.
The AIOC has provided $250-million in guaranteed loans to the 23 Indigenous communities. This investment by those communities amounts to $1.12-billion, the largest Indigenous ownership agreement in North America. AIOC has also played a role in providing $27-million for the Frog Lake First Nation, $40-million in the Northern Courier Pipeline system, and providing the necessary capital to six First Nations in their equity stake in the $1.5-billion Cascade Power Project.
For companies such as Enbridge, it is indisputable that Indigenous ownership has been beneficial in moving the projects forward. When a company enters into a project with Indigenous communities as partners, it takes on less risk. Indigenous communities share some of the risks of the projects as part of their investment.
In return, Indigenous communities take on own-source revenue. And with a say and a stake in the matter, they can better ensure the project meets their environmental standards.
These provincial programs have been win-win all around – but they are not enough. A national Indigenous guaranteed loan program is necessary.
The federal government has the unique ability to provide guaranteed loans at very low rates that cost the taxpayer nothing and to operate the program at a large enough scale. In the current geopolitical and economic climate, speeding along energy infrastructure is vital, and helping Indigenous communities get stakes in those projects is among the best options to do so.
Most Indigenous peoples and nations are not opposed to resource development. In fact, almost every community is already involved at some level in forestry, commercial fishing, agriculture, oil and gas, or mining.
What we are opposed to is being left behind. For over a century, resources were extracted from our territories without our say and without our benefit. That was never acceptable; now it’s no longer legal. Industry has a real opportunity to secure the viability of projects and lower their risk by bringing in Indigenous partners.