First Nations and Liquefied Natural Gas Development

Commentary, Energy, Joseph Quesnel

The division and acrimony between First Nation communities over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project can often mask the many examples of Indigenous communities that have successfully signed agreements with resource companies.

For example, how many Canadians know that the experience of First Nations on Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) development has been extremely positive?  This past April, a reporter in the National Post reported that the experience of LNG has been quite different in British Columbia than that of oil and gas pipelines.

“While B.C. First Nations have been lukewarm on oil pipelines coming from Alberta, on LNG, there is palpable Indigenous disappointment that there isn’t enough development,” explained National Post reporter Tristin Hopper.

If anything, governments and First Nations should look to the LNG deals that have been inked in British Columbia to see a working model or example of best practices.

Also, interestingly, the fact that B.C. First Nations are much more solidly behind LNG development means that First Nations are not kneejerk in opposition to these resource deals. As many Indigenous leaders have always said, they are not against all development. They just want to have the best deal possible for their communities. If First Nations are lining up behind LNG deals, we should be looking at those deals to see what they are offering to First Nations to get their support.

This also means that larger First Nation organizations don’t necessarily represent the views and positions of many of the communities they purport to represent. It is well past time that these organizations stop acting as if they speak for communities that are engaging in resource development on their own lands.

Karen Ogen-Toews, former chief of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in B.C. and now CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance, has been a vocal supporter of LNG development among native communities.

In an interview with BC Business, an online publication, Ogen-Toews said that she believes the problems stemmed from Indigenous misunderstandings of the growing resources industry. This misunderstanding, she said, starts in the halls of universities.

“I was a university student and know first-hand how easy it is to say no to everything,” she said to the media. “But saying no doesn’t fix our houses or improve our health care.” 

A social worker by background, Ogen-Toews discovered, as chief of her community, that LNG projects were the best means to improve living conditions in her community and create a sustainable economy. She also had to provide balanced and fact-based information to her community members directly. Environmentalist groups from outside the community who reject all resource developments, especially pipelines, complicated the narrative with self-interested alarmist rhetoric.

First Nations on the front line are finding that non-Indigenous environmentalists are fair-weather friends to Indigenous communities. They are friendly only if they continue opposing development.

Ogen-Toews was insistent that training be included in the deal, meaning that young natives – particularly men – receive experience for their training in welding and other skilled trades. Resource deals with First Nations must be big on training dollars for the youth so that these communities can give their members the dignity and pride of meaningful work. By helping these First Nations build capacity and increase employment, they are allowing these communities to invest in their own future.

Young Indigenous men represent a vast reservoir of untapped potential. First Nation men who are working are finding purpose in the lives and being better husbands and not getting involved in crime or violence.

First Nation communities that receive equity or ownership stakes in these projects are much more likely to be supportive. B.C.’s Huu-ay-aht First Nations members voted 70 per cent in favour of developing and co-managing in an equity share agreement for an LNG facility with Steelhead LNG in Vancouver Island’s Sarita Bay.

The Northern Gateway pipeline project was deemed superior to the Kinder Morgan expansion because it offered First Nations along the proposed route 10 per cent equity stakes. Allan Adam, chief of Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation in the oil sands region of northern Alberta – once a very vocal critic – said he would support a pipeline that involved First Nation ownership.

Looking to the future, First Nations will increasingly demand equity or ownership in any project to increase their sense that the project is in their best interests.

Governments and resource companies need to look at these successful First Nation resource agreements – such as the ones involving LNG in B.C. – to see how to increase Indigenous support for resource projects.