A new indigenous environmental strategy: Buying the pipeline

Why We Wrote This

Stereotypes hold that native peoples are against resource extraction like the pipelines. But what if indigenous ownership of such pipelines could provide environmental safeguards and tribal income?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Shane Gottfriedson, former chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc band of the Secwepemc First Nation, poses by the Trans Mountain pipeline, which is buried underground on Secwepemc traditional land, in Kamloops, British Columbia.

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Resource extraction projects often pit environmentally minded indigenous communities against the energy industry. That is no less the case with the proposed expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline, which runs from Alberta to British Columbia. But the Reconciliation Pipeline project is trying to bridge the gap by putting together an indigenous bid to buy a 51% stake in the pipeline.

It is far from clear that the players in the project will convince the government to sell. And they face resistance from many indigenous communities moving forward. But they see their offer as an alternative to messy pipeline politics that usually puts indigenous players on one side of a zero-sum game over resource extraction.

“The reality is we as First Nations are just as energy dependent as anyone else,” says Shane Gottfriedson, a former chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and a director of the project. “We’re living in homes that need heat. And we’re driving cars that require fuel or diesel. And I’d rather be sitting at the table making decisions, calling the shots as an owner and addressing all these concerns.”

The Trans Mountain oil pipeline cuts the traditional lands of the Secwepemc First Nation in British Columbia’s interior in two.

It might be a fluke of geography. But it delineates a clear battle line, as the project’s expansion has generated one of the most divisive environmental protests in Canadian history.

Since it was proposed in 2012, the upgrade, which would triple capacity of oil flowing from Alberta to the West Coast and beyond, has generated a drawn-out protest: between political parties; between the province of Alberta and the province of British Columbia; between east and west. No struggle has been more explosive than that between environmentalists and indigenous groups pitted against the energy sector.

But standing along the pipeline’s route on a recent day, Shane Gottfriedson, a former chief of the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc, one of 17 bands that make up this First Nation, is advocating for a middle ground: by having indigenous groups buy a majority stake in the pipeline.

Mr. Gottfriedson is a director of an indigenous-led venture that seeks to turn the pipeline from a point of conflict among indigenous peoples of western Canada to a pathway toward hope and greater prospects. Called the Reconciliation Pipeline (RP), the effort is putting together a bid to buy a 51% stake in the project, bringing financial benefits back to indigenous communities while ensuring the highest environmental standards, they say.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
The Trans Mountain pipeline, which is mostly buried underground, is seen above the Fraser River, in Hope, British Columbia.

It is far from clear that the players in RP (which was renamed from Project Reconciliation) will convince the government to agree to its terms. And they face resistance from many indigenous communities moving forward, especially along the coast. But they see their offer as an alternative to messy pipeline politics that usually puts indigenous players on one side of a zero-sum game over resource extraction.

“Looking after and taking care of the land is always the priority for us,” says Mr. Gottfriedson on his band’s reservation, under which the pipeline is buried. “The reality is we as First Nations are just as energy dependent as anyone else. Yes, we live off the land. Yes, we care about the four-legged ones, the winged ones, the water, the air. … But we’re not living in teepees, we’re not living in pit houses. We’re living in homes that need heat. And we’re driving cars that require fuel or diesel. And I’d rather be sitting at the table making decisions, calling the shots as an owner and addressing all these concerns.”

Indigenous engagement in the natural resource economy

The Trans Mountain pipeline has dogged Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau since the government purchased it from Kinder Morgan last year for $4.5 billion (Canadian; U.S.$3.3 billion) in a bid to push the project through and get more oil to market. The move generated widespread protests among environmentalists and indigenous groups, especially in coastal British Columbia, who condemned Mr. Trudeau, an advocate for climate action, for duplicity.

A court injunction had delayed the expansion work since last summer over lack of sufficient environmental assessment and indigenous consultation as required by law in Canada. Mr. Trudeau’s government is expected to decide on approval as early as next month, which could ignite another round of protests.

Ken Coates, a University of Saskatchewan professor who studies indigenous rights, says that such large-scale resource extraction projects among indigenous groups have started to gain ground only recently, a legacy of policies dating as far back as the Indian Act of 1876 that’s made it effectively impossible for them to raise the financing. “They don’t have a lot of historic capital; they haven’t got a lot of built-up investments over a hundred years. They have been, through government policies, kept very, very poor.”

Reconciliation Pipeline involves both indigenous and non-indigenous with backgrounds in oil or capital markets. And it is led by three former indigenous chiefs no longer in politics: Mr. Gottfriedson; Wallace Fox, former chief of Onion Lake Cree Nation; and executive chairman of the group Delbert Wapass, former chief of the Thunderchild First Nation and vice chairman of the Indian Resource Council.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
An overview of Kamloops in British Columbia.

Harrie Vredenburg, the Suncor Energy chair of strategy and sustainability at University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business and an executive board member of RP, says this is no handout, nor is it a risk to indigenous groups or Canadian taxpayers. Talks are underway with major Canadian banks to finance the C$6.8 billion acquisition.

All First Nations and Metis in the provinces of Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia are being invited to join the project, even if they do not live along the right of way. That’s about 340 in total, two-thirds of them in British Columbia. Their shares in RP depend on the degree of impact from the expansion.

Some call the entire idea far-fetched. Others, like Professor Coates, say it’s “reasonably possible” and draws from previous successful ventures. Whether it gets off the ground or not, the proposal itself helps to shift mindsets. “If you’d gone back even three years and talked to ... anybody in Canada, they would have said something really simple, that indigenous people don’t like pipelines,” says Professor Coates. That has always been flawed, he says, but such projects are changing not just the narrative but possibly the game. “It’s very ironic ... that indigenous engagement in the natural resource economy may be protecting it, if not saving it,” he says.

‘We must defend our land’

Reconciliation Pipeline faces no small amount of protest among indigenous communities. The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs issued an open letter in April, warning members to reject the proposal. “There are good reasons why Kinder Morgan chose to walk away from this project and you should carefully consider them before investing your Nation’s money,” the letter reads.

Upstream from where Mr. Gottfriedson stood, the project faces some of its most formidable foes: the Tiny House Warriors, who’ve fabricated homes along the expansion project in a bid to stop it. Today they are protesting a workers’ camp that they say will put their women and children in direct danger. Kanahus Manuel, a leader in the movement, says the project does not have the approval of the entire Secwepemc nation, which includes about 10,000 people.

“Our people, we’ve been living the laws of our land, and the laws state that we must defend our land. ... When people side with corporations, they’re going against our laws,” she says in a phone interview. “Some may say, ‘Oh, they’re entitled to their opinion, they could sign this pipeline.’ No, there are laws that are being broken that supersede Canadian [laws].”

In a commentary explaining the Tiny House Warriors resistance, Ms. Manuel wrote, “The spirit of Standing Rock is moving northward,” referring to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in the United States.

Mr. Gottfriedson says he accepts that not all indigenous communities will be on board, especially on the coast, where many fear environmental marine damage from oil exports. “I respect that; that’s their kitchen table.” But he also says they should respect his: that the status quo is not working, and that it’s time to move beyond managing poverty to managing prosperity.

“We’ve been oppressed for so long. It’s been status quo for people for many generations. … It’s a hard thing to rebuild,” he says.

In 1953, when the Trans Mountain pipeline was originally built, the community was not consulted. The land was essentially expropriated; they only benefited from a right-of-way fee, Mr. Gottfriedson says. Now companies are legally bound to consultation and accommodation guidelines. That’s caused delays, like the court injunction on the Trans Mountain expansion project, but also leveled the field.

“I think people now are starting to look at the future, and looking at more certainty of creating a better quality of life,” Mr. Gottfriedson says. “First Nations now have a say. First Nations now can be engaged if they so choose to be and create those benefits. I know with this project you get one opportunity.”

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