Naomi Sayers is an Indigenous feminist and lawyer in the energy sector from the Garden River First Nation.
Days after the federal Liberal government announced its intention to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline, a friend asked me what I thought about the decision. The purchase was certainly controversial, sitting as it did in the middle of national conversations that too often left, and continue to leave, Indigenous communities behind, whether those communities support or oppose such projects. Protests broke out opposing Trans Mountain and other pipelines, with critics arguing that the projects were not consented to; Alberta’s oil sector urged for the pipelines to be built, to bring the province’s once-prosperous economy back to life. Opinions reflecting some space in between were largely marginalized and silenced.
But the question is more complicated than can be answered in these binary ways. I am an Indigenous woman who is also a lawyer, who has lived and worked in communities impacted by the energy sector, for better or worse.
And my answer then is what it is now: I am inspired by the possibilities.
On Wednesday, The Globe and Mail reported that a First Nations-led group called Project Reconciliation is in talks with major Canadian banks in an effort to buy a 51-per-cent stake in Trans Mountain, giving Indigenous communities financial involvement in the divisive project. This is reportedly one of five Indigenous groups looking to make a bid, but it is the most ambitious, comprising Indigenous and non-Indigenous executives with experience in oil and gas, capital markets, business development and Indigenous relations, and earning a positive response from Alberta’s two major political parties. All First Nations in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia are being invited to join the bid.
I am moved by these actions. It is likely that only a few years ago, Indigenous stakeholders announcing a majority bid would not have been possible or even imagined. This is the future, and it gives me hope for our younger generations’ futures.
Reconciliation, as outlined in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Report, has inspired new partnerships between governments, corporations and other institutions. It is also based on mutual respect, and thus demands new opportunities between governments, corporations and Indigenous communities, too. The bid from Indigenous stakeholders is a forceful statement that positions us in the centre. Nothing without us.
The structure of the proposal – which acknowledges that communities in all three provinces may come to the table, but that those closest to the pipeline may have a greater stake – gives me hope. So, too, does the fact that this group would be positioning itself as partners in the global industry, since the Trans Mountain project aims to open up exports to Asia. Nothing says reconciliation more than action from all parties.
But the conversations need to include the Indigenous communities protesting the government and pipeline, too. The TRC’s calls to action demanded that partnerships must go beyond superficial land acknowledgments and minimal commitments to do better. And in November, 2018, at a leadership event for women in business, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognized that there was increased violence around construction sites, especially in rural areas. These remarks were not welcomed by those in Alberta’s oil sector, but as an Indigenous woman who has lived and worked near these sites, there is indeed increased violence around these projects. The safety of these communities is my ultimate concern.
This may lead one to assume that by selling a majority stake to Indigenous stakeholders, the government is offloading the problem to the very communities most affected by this violence, and displacing its duty to consult. Still, the duty to consult is not a duty to agree. I understand where those individuals and communities who do not agree with the Trans Mountain project are coming from. Nevertheless, I also believe that the earnest consideration of a majority bid would represent a heightened commitment to Indigenous communities and Indigenous people, especially those who are most vulnerable and marginalized, Indigenous women and girls. The responsibility would lie with us, and many of us are eager to enact change of our own making.
If Indigenous stakeholders win the bid, it would fill the gaps in the TRC’s calls to action. It would represent a new partnership with Indigenous communities and respect them as being the original stewards of their lands, and I believe that Indigenous communities are best positioned to be leading this kind of project. It is only through participation that such projects will truly benefit Indigenous communities, in ways beyond jobs, funding and education.
It would be a clear sign that it’s no longer a matter of how we make change; rather, it is a matter of when the change happens. I am excited to see Indigenous stakeholders taking their seat at the table instead of waiting to be invited.