Over nearly 10 years of consultation and development, Trans Mountain’s expansion project (TMX) faced opposition from some First Nations. But after a second round of consultation and with an impressive 173 conditions imposed on the pipeline, 120 of the 129 Indigenous communities along the route either supported or didn’t oppose the project.

Since then, four Indigenous groups have sought ownership of TMX, including Project ReconciliationChinook PathwaysNatural Law Energy, and Nesika Services.

Equity ownership in major projects is increasingly emerging as the “gold standard” of economic reconciliation and Indigenous-enterprise partnership. And it has profound impacts on Indigenous communities.

On March 9, 2022, for example, TC Energy announced the potential sale of a 10% equity interest in the Coastal GasLink pipeline. It agreed with two Indigenous groups, representing 16 communities along the pipeline route, on options to take an equity share.

Niilo Edwards, executive director of the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, which played a key facilitating role in the deal, says economic reconciliation is about First Nations charting their own paths to self-determination. “Everybody recognizes that you can’t do that without . . . economic activity and partnerships.”

Chief Corrina Leween of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation noted the significance of the partnership:

“For many of us, this marks the first time that our Nations have been included as owners in a major natural-resource project that is crossing our territories. This deal is important because it demonstrates the value First Nations can bring as true partners in major projects.”

To many, the emergence of Indigenous interest in equity partnerships — and growing support from industry — marks a turning point in the opportunities available for both partners. As an emerging generation of Indigenous entrepreneurs and leaders reclaim their voices, they are showing what can be made possible through partnerships.

Dale Swampy, a member of Samson Cree Nation and founder of the National Coalition of Chiefs (NCC), said: “To say that we are all against development is ludicrous. We’re in favour of prosperity. . . . We know that the majority of chiefs are in favour of participating in major projects.”

The NCC, which is committed to working with the natural-resource industry for shared prosperity, joined the Resource Works supported Indigenous Partnerships Success Showcase (IPSS) as a partner for its third annual event in 2022.

“The time has come for First Nations to be active participants in the development of Canadian natural resources, to ensure we are not still living in poverty and despair a generation from now,” said Swampy. “Most Canadians know this and more First Nations support the natural-resource sectors, like oil and gas, than oppose it.”

The data seems convincing. Research from the Canadian Energy Centre shows that the vast majority of roughly 250 First Nations in BC and Alberta, with publicly available positions on the issue and who were likely to be impacted by oil and gas development, support further development.

Meanwhile, a poll of Indigenous attitudes on resource development undertaken by an IPSS 2023 partner, the Indigenous Resource Network (IRN), found that 65% of Indigenous respondents supported natural resource development while only 23% were opposed. Notably, First Nations are twice as likely to support resource developments near their community.

Some 53% support oil and gas development, compared to 41% in opposition. Job opportunities and economic development were tied with access to health care as the most urgent priority for respondents, followed by other issues, including governance, education, traditional activities and federal transfers.

“This helps confirm what we’ve seen and heard in our communities,” said John Desjarlais, IRN executive director. “Most of us are not opposed to resource development. We are opposed to being left out.”

While not all Indigenous communities in Canada support oil and gas development, First Nations leaders are increasingly speaking of the opportunities for their communities to develop natural resources on or through their traditional lands — if the conditions are right.

Chief Councillor Crystal Smith of the Haisla First Nation has watched her own community evolve and flourish through its involvement in LNG (liquefied natural gas) export opportunities.

“Growing up today in our community has no boundaries — it’s absolutely amazing to see that if my girls want to be a carpenter or an electrician, there’s nobody saying you’re not going to get funded for school,” she says. “If they want to do that, they’re going to be able to do it.”

The Haisla Nation’s own proposed LNG export facility, Cedar LNG, received environmental approval from the BC and federal government, subject to conditions, in March 2023.

The project is expected to be the first Indigenous-owned LNG export facility in Canada and one of the first in the world.

Haisla Nation Chief Councillor Crystal Smith announcing Cedar LNG’s environmental approval. Photo BC Government.

Yet, it would seem, not even Indigenous backing can save some projects from political interference. Swampy notes that Natural Law Energy, a group of five First Nations, reached an agreement with TC Energy to purchase part of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska before the Biden administration killed the project.

But President Biden wasn’t the first political leader to stand in the way of First Nations’ energy aspirations.

A few years ago, Calvin Helin of Lax Kw’alaams Nation, and son of a hereditary chief, rallied 35 First Nations behind his vision for the multi-pipeline Eagle Spirit Energy Corridor. It was the stuff good stories of which good stories are made.

Growing up, Helin says he saw first-hand the poverty so many Indigenous communities suffer. Then, at 12 years old, Helin was sent south to live with a family in BC’s Lower Mainland. He learned what he calls “family Chinese” and opened a karate club offering free lessons to Indigenous kids in East Vancouver.

After studying and practising business and constitutional law, publishing books on Indigenous history and leading an Indigenous trade mission to China, his vision for Eagle Spirit was born.

The multibillion-dollar deal would have seen four pipelines, both natural gas and oil, bring opportunity from Alberta’s oilpatch to BC’s northern coast and on to Asian markets.

Remarkably, Eagle Spirit won approval from all First Nations chiefs along its proposed route and the financial backing of Aquilini Investment Group, offering equity to over 400 First Nations in Western and Northern Canada. It was visionary.

“It turns the whole model on its head where the starting point is First Nations, not the ending point,” said Helin.

But, seemingly out of nowhere, it was cancelled at the 11th hour. The federal government passed Bill C-48, banning oil tankers from docking on BC’s northern coast. And though the bill introduced a higher standard for consulting with Indigenous peoples, it was, ironically, the vehicle that frustrated an aspiring project driven by Indigenous peoples themselves.

When it comes to its sweeping, unifying, and restorative vision, Eagle Spirit may have been the first of its kind but not the last.

More recently, Treaty 8 First Nations, representing 40 nations in BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories, expressed their intent for a similar energy and transportation corridor.

“It’s definitely a work in progress, but we have unity. We have unity right now within the Treaty 8 governments,” said Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom of the Woodland Cree First Nation in northern Alberta.

Then, in September 2022, twenty-three Indigenous communities, including the Cree, Dene, and Metis people from northeast Alberta, formed Athabasca Indigenous Investments to purchase an 11.57% non-operating interest in seven Enbridge-operated pipelines running through their collective territories for $1.12 billion.

It’s a historic development. The investment provides the Indigenous peoples who are most impacted by the pipelines a direct stake in the projects and their management. It’s leaps and bounds from the royalty agreements of yesteryear.

“On behalf of the Indigenous partners, we are proud to become equity owners in these high-quality assets which contribute to North American energy supply and security,” said Justin Bourque, President of Athabasca Indigenous Investments.

“This is a truly historic day for our communities in the Athabasca region,” added Chief Greg Desjarlais of Frog Lake First Nation. “In addition to an opportunity to generate wealth for our people, this investment supports economic sovereignty for our communities. We look forward to working with a leading energy company like Enbridge, which shares Indigenous values of water, land and environmental stewardship.”

All across Canada, Indigenous peoples are at the forefront of re-imagining natural resource projects, ensuring the benefits are felt across the country but also within their own communities. Now, through equity ownership in major projects, they are redefining what’s possible.

Josiah Haynes is content director of Resource Works and communications manager of the Resource Works supported Indigenous Partnerships Success Showcase, returning June 1-2, 2023. Learn more at www.Indigenoussucess.ca.