Revitalize the Long-Neglected Economies of Northern Manitoba and Northern Saskatchewan

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

The Churchill pipeline would revitalize the long-neglected economies of northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan, but the ultimate success of this pipeline to Churchill, Manitoba will depend on the involvement and support of Indigenous communities in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

The alternate route was proposed when concerns were raised about the eventual success of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project. The northern regions of both provinces have long complained about the neglect their communities have received over the years. Neglect in public infrastructure is a common complaint. 

Thus, it is a very good sign when Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) is urging both Manitoba and Saskatchewan to engage with northern Indigenous communities early on. 

“The AMC calls on Saskatchewan Premier Scott and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister to ensure that First Nations in Manitoba are involved in the discussions for the development of an oil pipeline to Churchill. First Nations in Manitoba must be involved, consulted and engaged in the process in a manner that respects their rights and interests. This includes considerations of First Nations’ interests in other infrastructure including the railway, and, if developed, their involvement that leads to positive economic benefits and prosperity,” he said, in a statement

This apparent willingness to engage on this issue on the part of Manitoba’s main Indigenous organizations stands in contrast to the rejectionist approach of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) that has rejected almost all natural resource projects planned in British Columbia, from the Trans Mountain project to the Site C dam. There is no project that the UBCIC does not seem to oppose. Of course, this has caused it to come into conflict with BC Indigenous communities who want development and economic opportunity. 

Unsurprisingly, this has caused special tensions with the remote north of BC where development opportunities are harder to come by. For instance, when some northern BC communities opposed the federal government’s discriminatory and draconian oil tanker ban and wanted exemptions from its provisions, they came into conflict with the UBCIC and other BC coastal First Nations. 

This means Indigenous communities in northern Manitoba need to come together now to discuss their strategies and desires from this pipeline development. Northern First Nations should also ensure that they bring all the affected communities onside and make sure that they receive full assent from within their communities based on their own governance system. The lesson from the Wetʼsuwetʼen First Nation protests is that Indigenous communities must decide about decision-making processes internally first before engaging with resource proponents. After these protests, these companies must realize that resolving those issues is in their best interests and should give these communities wide latitude to do internal governance work prior to signing any agreements. 

These northern communities cannot even wait for the Manitoba provincial government to come up with a plan. First Nation leaders should be approaching private lenders and other bodies about the possibility of buying a stake in the pipeline so that these communities can enjoy the benefits. 

It is not a foregone conclusion that the province will expend the right amount of political capital to see this through to completion. The political reality is that the province tends to focus disproportionately on the needs and interests of the southern half of the province. Provincial governments are made in the many ridings of Winnipeg. 

First Nation and non-Indigenous northern communities engaging on a potential Churchill pipeline project would allow the northern region to take control of its economic destiny and allow them to not be dependent on an often-negligent provincial government. 

One hopes that this pipeline project would represent only the start of a fruitful partnership between northern Indigenous communities and the province. First Nations in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan should look to partnership models such as the agreement signed between the Quebec government and the northern Crees. 

Both parties recently signed a $4.7 billion agreement to extend rail infrastructure and mining development into the northern reaches. The partnership also includes effective habitat and ecosystem protections. Northern Prairie First Nations should push for a similar kind of agreement. That kind of partnership would be a serious game-changer for the region. 

This kind of pipeline project would also allow Alberta and Saskatchewan to overcome the effects of their landlocked status in Confederation. Also, in this climate of Western separation talks, if the Indigenous communities of northern Manitoba do not receive adequate support from the province on the project, they could initiate discussions of their own about redrawing their borders to accommodate coastal access for the northern reaches. 

But, now is the time for northern Indigenous communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to push for engagement on the Churchill project. The opportunity may not exist forever. 

Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.  www.fcpp.og