The prospect that a First Nations-led group might buy a controlling stake in the Trans Mountain pipeline project is certainly encouraging news.
Such a deal would likely rank as the largest energy investment by Indigenous people in Canada.
More importantly, a purchase would help align the often-divergent interests of First Nations and the country’s resource economy. In time, a well-executed purchase might even help spread jobs and opportunity to economically disadvantaged communities.
Far less clear is whether Indigenous ownership would help green-light the long-delayed pipeline expansion, which the federal government now owns.
No doubt, many pipeline backers think it probably wouldn’t hurt – particularly with elections looming in Alberta and federally.
The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that a collection of First Nations in Western Canada, dubbed Project Reconciliation, is in talks with major Canadian banks on a proposed debt issue to finance the purchase of a 51-per-cent stake in the project. Competing Indigenous groups are reportedly looking at making similar pitches to Ottawa in the coming months.
“If it goes ahead, it would be hugely significant," said University of Ottawa political science professor Monica Gattinger, who heads the Institute for Science, Society and Policy. “It begins to counter the narrative that Indigenous communities do not want to see oil and gas development.”
Prof. Gattinger acknowledged that getting energy projects approved remains extremely difficult in Canada. But she said getting First Nations at the table is an essential prerequisite to building trust and making sure local communities share in the long-term economic benefits and oversight of resource projects.
"These developments are important, not just for energy and natural resource development, but also for economic reconciliation,” Prof. Gattinger said.
Indigenous investment in resources is hardly new. First Nations already own all or part of hundreds of resource projects across Canada, including hydroelectric dams, wind turbines, solar farms, mines, sawmills and oil and gas installations. In 2017, the Fort McKay and Mikisew bands used a $545-million bond issue to buy a 49-per-cent stake in a Suncor oil storage tank farm in Northern Alberta. Frog Lake First Nation, also in Alberta, owns a small oil producer.
Taking a controlling take in Trans Mountain would eclipse all of those in size and complexity.
There is obvious logic in getting Indigenous groups more involved in resource projects. Having a direct financial stake should help build support in local communities. Ownership offers First Nations a greater say over how projects are managed and who gets the spoils, such as jobs and contracts.
But ownership alone won’t guarantee Indigenous buy-in. And creating enduring economic opportunity for Indigenous communities is far more difficult than putting together a multibillion-dollar transaction.
First of all, the federal government has been clear that it won’t sell Trans Mountain until the project has cleared all remaining legal challenges and shovels are in the ground. As Ian Anderson, who heads the federal government’s Trans Mountain Crown corporation, pointed out earlier this year: “There is no project to invest in at this point.”
Meanwhile, securing broad approval from First Nations for the project remains elusive. Opinions about resource development among First Nations people are as diverse as they are elsewhere in Canada.
Another significant challenge in some First Nations is to ensure that community members have the skills needed to seize the opportunities that would flow from the project. Unless there are parallel efforts to create a ready work force, jobs could prove hard to come by.
Navigating Indigenous politics is tricky at the best of times. The continuing battle over the Coastal GasLink pipeline to feed LNG Canada’s liquefied natural gas terminal in Kitimat, B.C., is a case in point. The pipeline has the support of elected band councils in 25 First Nations along the 670-kilometre route, but not from a clutch of hereditary chiefs, who steadfastly oppose the project and claim control over much of the land involved.
A lot comes down to economic self-interest. Members of First Nations in oil-producing regions are far more likely to see value in a pipeline to get crude oil to markets in Asia. On the other hand, bands on the B.C. coast see fewer benefits and considerably more environmental downside.
And unless Indigenous ownership delivers tangible and broadly shared economic opportunity, the backlash against future resource development could be severe.