First Nations leaders in British Columbia are seeking multibillion-dollar loan guarantees from the federal government to enable them to take ownership stakes in various liquefied natural gas projects being planned in the province, and have also travelled to China and Japan looking for backers.
The bid to raise financing comes as the Assembly of First Nations launches an effort to forge an aboriginal national energy strategy, which would be based on treaty rights, sustainable development and the need for impoverished communities to benefit from the massive resource development that Canada expects over the next decade.
"What is absolutely clear is that unless First Nations are included as full partners in development, the prospects for projects proceeding are negligible," said Dave Porter, chief executive of British Columbia First Nations Energy and Mining Council.
He said aboriginal communities will resort to the courts if Ottawa presses ahead over their objections with pipeline projects such as Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway.
But Mr. Porter said there is an opportunity for industry to partner with First Nations, especially on proposals to develop shale gas fields in northeastern B.C., and build liquefaction plants on the coast to ship the LNG to Asia. There are a dozen projects under consideration, and the British Columbia government is eager to have at least five approved by the end of 2015.
Ottawa has supported Newfoundland and Labrador's Lower Churchill project with a $5-billion loan guarantee, and Mr. Porter said the Harper government has described resource projects in B.C. as being in the national interest as the country looks to diversify its energy export market away from a near-total reliance on the United States, to access fast-growing Asia.
"If these projects are deemed to be in the national interest, then surely we're going to see a positive response," Mr. Porter said. "Because in my view, Canada will not reach its full economic potential until it reconciles the place of First Nations, which means direct involvement in joint planning, joint decision-making, and the sharing in the benefits. And that means more than jobs and contracts, it means ownership."
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver said the government "is not actively considering" loan guarantees for LNG projects. He noted the government has just received a report on aboriginal issues with resource development in Western Canada.
"We will thoroughly review the recommendations before making decisions on next steps," the minister said in an e-mailed statement.
Some B.C. aboriginal communities are already pursuing ownership interest in LNG projects.
The Haisla First Nation is working with three separate projects Kitimat, run by Chevron Corp. and Apache Corp.; the project led by Royal Dutch Shell PLC, and the B.C./ LNG project led by Malaysia's Petronas.
At a conference across the river from Ottawa, AFN leaders said aboriginal communities need their own national energy strategy that would give them a road map for dealing with government and industry on resource development, similar to the provincial effort led by Alberta Premier Alison Redford.
"We want to find a way to articulate the leadership's view and vision of how they want to be involved in resource development in Canada, and how we see resource development incorporating our view on issues such as consultation and managing the lands and sustainability," said Richard Nerysoo, president of the Gwich'in tribal council in the Northwest Territories and co-chair of the AFN's economic development committee.
But the AFN chiefs face their own internal challenges as they look to become partners in oil and gas development.
The push for LNG development is raising fears about fracking in northeastern B.C.
Activist Caleb Behn warned that aboriginal communities are threatened by large-scale development of shale gas, with hydraulic fracturing posing a threat to local water sources.
He urged the AFN chiefs to focus any national strategy on renewable energy development, rather than fossil fuels.