A Small Step On The Long Road To Reconciliation
I’m thrilled to see the federal and Alberta governments talking about a possible large Aboriginal stake in the Trans Mountain crude pipeline, assuming completion of the expansion project.
Potential deals such as this one are an important step in reconciling with our Indigenous peoples after a long history of cultural genocide — and sometimes worse. But, to be frank, it shouldn’t have taken so long.
The highlight of my time working at the Conference Board of Canada in the middle of this decade was crossing paths with Phil Fontaine, three term national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), and his son Mike. Phil spoke at several of my events. His key message was reconciliation is not possible without improving the quality of life of Indigenous peoples, with substantial stakes in major natural resource projects impacting their lands an important step in that direction. Phil’s one line that has haunted me to this day is: “Poverty is debilitating.”
Following Phil speaking at an event in September 2015 to launch the ill-fated Canadian Energy Transition Initiative (CETI; pronounced “see-tee”; more later), I sat talking with Mike as we waited for his father to disengage from a crowd of well-wishers. “Do you think we will see reconciliation within your dad’s lifetime?” “No way,” he laughed. “Your lifetime?” “Nope.” “How about within your kids lifetime?” Mike was around 50 years old at the time and had mentioned he had kids at home. “Maybe,” he said. “Why so bad?” I asked. “Because white people [expletive] hate us.”
A harsh assessment? I think not. For my second go around at university, I double majored in political science and sociology at the University of Calgary in the mid-1990’s — after getting a master’s degree in economics a decade before from the University of Alberta. One of my few favorite courses second time around was was Sociology of Indians, by an absolutely excellent professor named Rick Ponting. I was always rather perplexed by the title of the course, however, as Professor Ponting was one of the few most politically correct people I’ve ever met. But, in retrospect, if I was to hazard a guess, it may have been because of the ingrained prejudice he knew many Canadians have towards “Indians.”
I’ve seen this prejudice first-hand within my own extended family. My son and daughter, who are now young adults, are blonde haired and blue eyed, and on the whole have been treated extremely well by our society. In contrast, my older sister married a Métis from northern Alberta. Her son and daughter, who are quite a bit older than my children, may only be a quarter Cree but they both look like full-blooded Indians. They have both been treated quite poorly by our society, socially and in terms of employment opportunities and such. This article was held up a few days, as my niece died suddenly, as many young Indians do, on the weekend.
As the old adage goes, “Beware of white men bearing gifts.” Indigenous peoples in Canada have learned this yet again, having been exploited by environmental groups in recent years to their economic detriment.
For example, U.S.-based CorpEthics, which bills itself as “strategic advisors to environmental campaigns,” previously bragged on their website about devising the highly successful strategy to strangle the oilsands industry by stopping construction of new pipeline capacity. A key component of this strategy, environmental groups leveraging the power of Indigenous peoples because of numerous Supreme Court decisions giving First Nations greater control over their lands and Section 35 of Canada’s constitution that states the feds must consult them when projects could negatively impact their communities.
Ingrained prejudice against Indigenous people also helped open the door for environmental groups to co-opt them to their anti-resource development agenda, as these groups showed apparent respect when they came a knocking, including respect for the guardianship role these Indigenous communities hold dear towards their land.
But an increasing number of Aboriginal leaders have come to conclude these environmental groups bamboozled them. For example, Martín Louie, hereditary chief of the Nadleh Whut’en First Nation in north-central B.C., who environmental group Stand.earth described as the “poster boy” for Indigenous opposition to Enbridge’s $7 billion Northern Gateway crude pipeline project, complained after the project was rejected by the feds in November 2016 that he simply wanted a better deal for his impoverished community than the “ridiculous” $70,000 a year offered by the company. Louie is now one of the leaders behind the proposed $17 billion, Aboriginal-owned Eagle Spirit pipeline corridor.
“The best way to describe it is eco-colonialism,” says Ken Brown, a former chief of the Klahoose First Nation in southwestern B.C. “You are seeing a very pervasive awakening among these First Nations leaders about what is going on in the environmental community.”
One reason it shouldn’t have taken so long to offer Indigenous peoples a substantial stake in pipeline projects, partly in an attempt to move them forward, was because all the building blocks were in place by autumn 2015.
The first time I had Phil speak at one of my Conference Board events, roughly a year earlier, I realized he and his message were a key piece in solving Western Canada’s crude pipeline puzzle. Speaking to him after his speech, I explained to him the core reason for me leaving New York and joining the Conference Board in Calgary: to create a win-win-win-win outcome for Western Canada’s oil industry, Aboriginals, environmentalists and governments by bringing all the key players to the table and cutting a “grand bargain” through an iterative process to gradually build widespread support.
I asked Phil what he thought. He said the Conference Board is the one organization in Canada with the clout and reputation for impartiality that could bring all the major players to the table and pull it off. Music to my ears and a great relief, as I had staked my career, and indirectly my family’s financial well-being, on pulling it off. I asked if he would be the Indigenous representative for such an initiative. “For sure,” Phil said, and we shook hands.
Fast-forward a year to the launch conference for CETI. All the key players are in the same room at the same time for the first time. You could cut the tension with a knife, but at the same time there was a spirit of compromise in the air. Tzeporah Berman, environmental activist extraordinaire, during her absolutely spellbinding keynote lunch address, acknowledged a role for the oilsands in the energy mix for the first time ever. She agreed to be the environmental representative for CETI before leaving the event.
But CETI never got off the launch pad, primarily due to the arrogance of the federal and Alberta governments, the same sort of arrogance Indigenous people have had to endure since being dominated by the Canadian government. Instead of funding the initiative, the feds and the Notley governments borrowed heavily from it instead, thinking they could do it better.
I have no doubt that the Conference Board and CETI could have done it better, for the reasons stated by Phil when he and I first met. It would have provided Indigenous communities with a real financial incentive to move pipeline projects forward sooner. At the same time, it would have provided Tzeporah with the cover of an impartial organization and institute to sell the grand bargain to her environmental constituency, rather than pegging her as a stooge of the oil industry and the Alberta government.
To conclude, kudos to the federal and Alberta government for finally discussing a possible large Aboriginal stake in the Trans Mountain project, assuming potential Indigenous partners can line up funding for their share of the project. A small, but important step on the long road to reconciliation.
In loving memory of my niece, Jenn Durocher. May she finally Rest In Peace.