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Suncor Energy Inc.’s chief executive says Indigenous ownership of the Trans Mountain expansion might help blunt opposition to the contentious pipeline project.

Several First Nations groups have floated the idea of buying an ownership stake in the project since Ottawa announced it would acquire the existing line for $4.5-billion and finance the expansion, an extraordinary bid to salvage the plan and shore up investor confidence in Canada’s downtrodden oil patch.

An Indigenous man raises a drum above his head as he and others are silhouetted while singing during a protest against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Vancouver on Tuesday, May 29, 2018.

DARRYL DYCK/CP

Oil sands giant Suncor last year partnered with two Indigenous groups in Fort McMurray, Alta., selling a 49-per-cent stake in an oil-storage facility to the Fort McKay and Mikisew Cree First Nations. To fund the deal, the groups raised $545-million in the biggest-ever First Nations-led bond issue.

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Suncor CEO Steve Williams said the partnership has worked well and that Indigenous ownership in Trans Mountain could complement engagement efforts undertaken by proponent Kinder Morgan Inc. The company had touted benefit agreements with 43 First Nations along the route from Edmonton to Burnaby, B.C., before it sold the project last month.

“There were already significant engagements from Kinder Morgan with First Nations along the pipeline route, so I strongly suspect that part of the solution will be some Indigenous ownership and partnership in the line,” Mr. Williams told reporters on Wednesday in Calgary.

Suncor and others say Trans Mountain would vastly expand the oil industry’s ability to export crude to global markets, easing shipping constraints that have weighed on prices for heavy oil sands crude and severely crimped oil-rich Alberta’s finances.

But the $7.4-billion project faces opposition in the courts and protests from some Indigenous groups and municipalities on the British Columbia coast, home to an export terminal that would see a seven-fold increase in oil-tanker traffic from the pipeline expansion.

Ottawa agreed to buy the existing 300,000-barrel-a-day (b/d) line last month after Kinder Morgan balked at proceeding with the expansion, and the Trudeau Liberals have signalled an openness to Indigenous investment in the plan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met on Tuesday in B.C. with members of the Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee, which called for an oversight role for First Nations in the pipeline. Committee chair Ernie Crey said Mr. Trudeau is willing to discuss the approach.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said pension funds are also interested in potentially acquiring some or all of the expansion, which would nearly triple capacity, to 890,000 b/d.

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Still, investment bankers and energy-industry executives have cautioned that would-be buyers are likely to steer clear until the project is closer to completion.

Among those that have expressed an interest is Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Chief Allan Adam, also a director of the Athabasca Tribal Council, which represents five regional First Nations.

Mr. Adam did not return a phone call and e-mail message on Wednesday. In April, he told the CBC: “We want to be owners of a pipeline.” It marked a sudden turnabout for a man who famously toured with rocker Neil Young and environmentalist David Suzuki in the 2014 “Honour the Treaties” tour, which helped support First Nations legal battles against oil sands expansion.

Trans Mountain must still overcome a federal court challenge that revolves around Indigenous rights and title. And the project also faces rising costs as delays mount.

Mr. Trudeau was criticized over Tuesday’s private meeting with First Nations leaders who support the project.

However, opposition to the expansion is far from unanimous, said Ron Quintal, president of the Athabasca River Métis, which represents five communities in the region.

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The energy industry should welcome more investment in projects that affect First Nation lands, he said. “I mean real ownership,” he said.

“By having equity and ownership, you get a stake and say in how a project is going to be developed.”

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