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Pro-oil First Nations go on the offensive, organize conference

Many indigenous communities rely on the energy sector for jobs and now they are speaking out.

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First Nations that rely on oil and gas extraction for the economic well-being of their communities say it is time that their voices were heard as loud and as often as those that stand in opposition to resource development.

One aboriginal energy advocacy group is organizing a conference, to take place in the fall, that would bring together indigenous leaders, industry executives and government representatives to discuss ways to collaborate on future projects, especially pipelines.

After the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador announced its opposition last week to TransCanada's proposed Energy East pipeline – saying there is a "very real risk of a toxic tar sands spill that could not be cleaned up" – the organizers of the conference are speaking out about what they call pipeline gridlock.

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The First Nations communities that depend on the energy sector for employment and wealth have been hit hard by the economic downturn, the drop in oil prices, and wildfires that have swept across the northern Prairies, said Stephen Buffalo, president of the Indian Resource Council, the group that is organizing the October meeting.

"So when I hear environmentalists saying no to pipelines, the other side of me is saying communities here are suffering," Mr. Buffalo said.

Funds from oil and gas extraction provide direct jobs to First Nations, many of which have started their own energy companies, and indirect jobs for indigenous people in field services, he said. "Pipelines are a safe way to move the product," Mr. Buffalo said.

"My call-out to the chiefs who say no is, 'Tell us the reason why not,' because I don't understand. And you can tell my friend Chief Wallace Fox of the Onion Lake First Nation why we can't have a pipeline going out east because it's product that we need to move. He is building his community with that source of revenue."

Ken Coates, director of the International Centre for Northern Governance and Development at the University of Saskatchewan, has written a major research paper, to be released this week, about the importance of the energy sector to First Nations.

The First Nations' reaction to pipelines and resource development is much the same as that of non-aboriginal people, in that some are in favour and some are opposed, he said.

"But there is actually a really good and strong and consistent group out there of First Nations that have participated in the resource economy in really interesting and creative ways, and are producing very successful companies and are making real contributions," he said.

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"People don't realize that there are billions of dollars in aboriginal trust funds now sitting in Ottawa from First Nations that have received money from the benefits of resource development. There are 250 aboriginal development corporations across the country, many of which have hundreds of millions of dollars in investable assets and employ hundreds of people."

Much has changed in recent years for First Nations and their relationship to Canada's oil patch, Dr. Coates said. Court rulings that have gone in their favour and the government's promise to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples mean that resource companies and governments can no longer treat them as an afterthought, he added.

"We know now that, in order to get major resource projects and pipelines and infrastructure things off the ground, there has to be indigenous engagement of a level that is very different than before," he said, noting that there is a "huge increase in aboriginal entrepreneurship that is largely tied to the resource sector."

There is absolutely nothing wrong with indigenous people opposing pipelines because that is their right, Dr. Coates said. But there is another side to the story, and it is "fascinating," he said, referring to the number of First Nations that have become energy entrepreneurs and are now hurting – along with the rest of Canada's energy industry.

Blaine Favel, an adviser to the resource industry who will chair this fall's Indian Resource Council conference, said indigenous energy companies and the thousands of people they employ are struggling.

"The environmental movement seems to have carried the day and they don't want people to have a good, hard look at the fact that, today, as we speak, First Nations people own pipelines, they own all aspects of the value chain of energy development," he said.

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To counter that, the federal and Alberta governments need to play a role in supporting indigenous involvement in the energy sector, Mr. Favel said. They could provide loan guarantees for aboriginal interests in pipeline development, or they could create something like the Inter-American Development Bank – which provides economic development funds for Latin America and the Caribbean – to use some of the profits from the pipeline companies to stimulate First Nations economic development.

The conference will provide an opportunity to toss around those types of ideas. "There is another voice here," Mr. Favel said, "and that is the voice of working First Nations who want to go to work and provide for their children and make their communities healthy and stronger."

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