A number of Alberta First Nations are hopeful Jason Kenney’s election victory means that increased Indigenous ownership of pipelines will become reality, but that anticipation is being restrained by concerns about how much help the new premier-designate will provide.
Mr. Kenney has promised his United Conservatives will help Indigenous communities invest in resource projects, including pipelines, by creating a new $1-billion Crown corporation. The incoming premier’s commitment comes at a time when First Nations are receptive. The pipeline debate and the delivery of long-sought prosperity to isolated communities has dominated discussions around the chiefs’ table in recent months, according to Marlene Poitras, the Alberta regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations.
Chiefs are looking to balance a possible investment in the twinning of the federally owned Trans Mountain pipeline, which would transport Alberta’s oil to the Pacific coast, with concerns about climate change, she said.
“The climate-change crisis is an issue with a lot of the First Nations. They want to ensure the protection of the environment, particularly for the benefit and use of our future generations. That issue will come out as we move forward with pipelines, but on the other hand, First Nations have wanted to take advantage of the economic opportunities that everyone has enjoyed for the past 100 years,” Ms. Poitras said.
A First Nations-led group is putting together a bid to buy 51 per cent of Ottawa’s Trans Mountain pipeline, The Globe and Mail reported in March. All First Nations from Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia are being invited to join the $6.8-billion plan. The group hopes to get construction started on the expanded pipeline by giving Indigenous communities a financial stake in the project.
A different group is proposing to build a First Nations-led pipeline called Eagle Spirit, which would link the oil sands to the Pacific Ocean by crossing Northern B.C. to a port near Prince Rupert. Calvin Helin, the president of Eagle Spirit Energy Holding, says his company has secured 100-per-cent backing from local chiefs.
Mr. Helin said he believes Mr. Kenney’s proposal is “courageous” and will help First Nations develop their local economies. “One of the major unfinished pieces of business of Confederation is ensuring that Indigenous people are real economic partners. So that when projects impact their traditional territories they should be consulted with and included as stakeholders at the very outset,” he said.
Mr. Kenney’s proposed Aboriginal Opportunities Corporation could eventually provide technical and financial support to Indigenous communities looking to invest in either proposal.
Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom from the Woodland Cree First Nation said his community is waiting to see what kind of support Mr. Kenney will eventually provide, but he’s encouraged by the premier-designate’s support for Indigenous investment in pipelines.
Mr. Kenney’s swearing-in is planned for April 30.
“He is in definite support of Eagle Spirit and for me that’s an awesome thing,” said Mr. Laboucan-Avirom. “I’d like to sit and wait and see how things work out. Let’s see what happens when he’s sworn in.”
The chief said he recently ran into Mr. Kenney and discussed the UCP Leader’s proposal to sell Crown land in Northern Alberta. A number of chiefs have expressed concern about the party’s plan but Mr. Laboucan-Avirom said the premier-designate explained he would consult widely with First Nations before any land is sold.
Mr. Kenney, who spoke with The Globe before his election win, said the Crown corporation proposal is a “key moment” for Alberta. He said the plan follows a change of opinions among Alberta’s conservatives, who may not have considered a partnership with First Nations even five years ago.
“I think there’s been a change in the country’s attitude toward First Nations, the moral obligations we have in the spirit of reconciliation, and the practical need for real, serious allies among First Nations to get pipelines built.”
Chief Roy Fox of the Blood Tribe said his community is looking to invest in oil and gas, as well as alternative-energy projects, but has so far not shown much interest in pipelines.
“Because it is so unsure, pipeline investment in Canada is so unsure, we haven’t become that involved one way or the other," Mr. Fox said. “It remains to be seen what the new government is going to get involved in as far as working with Indigenous people.”
The community, south of Calgary, operates a number of oil wells and is in an area where several First Nations have collaborated with new wind-power projects. “We’re looking to meet with his cabinet, but not specifically about pipelines,” he added.
In a letter sent to First Nations on Thursday, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs warned that investments in Trans Mountain might be made without “a full and accurate account of the financial future of the project.”
He said the pipeline’s revenue, reported at around $200-million annually, would translate into little profit. The pipeline’s expected construction costs have also increased significantly before work is under way, from $6.8-billion in 2015 to $9.3-billion in 2018. “Opposition from other First Nations and lawsuits are almost certain to continue to cause delays and cost overruns,” Mr. Phillip wrote.