‘Build the plan’ WITH First Nations

The following is derived from a lecture that our CEO, Karen Ogen-Toews, delivered to University of Calgary students on 14 May 2020:

Here we are in 2020, a far cry from 1876 — but in some ways not too far a cry. The year 1876 was when the Indian Act came into being in Canada, a law that — although somewhat changed since 1876 — still rules many aspects of our Indigenous lives.

Two quick facts about the Indian Act:

  • Until 1985, a First Nations woman marrying a non-Indigenous man lost her status as an “Indian.” This law did not apply to First Nations men who married non-Indian women.
  • 1985 was almost 20 years after the University of Calgary was founded. Yet until 1985 a First Nations member who earned a university degree lost their “Indian status” rights.

And remember that the last Residential School in Canada remained open until 1996 — only 24 years ago.

It’s 2020. We have come some way, but we have not come far enough.  Hopefully, though, we have embarked on a new era of reconciliation.

As CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance, I look on reconciliation as a process that can start with economic reconciliation.

And the development and export of LNG — liquefied natural gas — offers an economic contribution that is welcomed by many First Nations people.

You have no doubt heard that my own Nation, the Wet’suwet’en, is divided on the issue of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. It will run underground through our unceded territory, and it will feed natural gas to the processing and export plant of LNG Canada at Kitimat.

To cut a long story short:

  • The elected council of the Wet’suwet’en, on which I sit as a councillor, supports the development. We see it as in the interest of our people, and so do a large majority of our people. It will offer training, careers, and revenue.
  • But a small group of hereditary chiefs argues that they, and only they, have the right and mandate to decide on the pipeline; and they oppose it.
  • The picture has become even more complicated because the federal and BC governments have signed a memorandum, with those hereditary chiefs, on a pathway to resolve Wet’suwet’en rights and title.
  • The last paragraph of the memorandum reads: “This agreement is to be ratified by Canada, BC and the Wet’suwet’en under their respective systems of governance.”

But what do Ottawa and BC see as the governance system of the Wetsuwet’en? The group of hereditary chiefs? A combination of hereditary chiefs and the elected chiefs and elected councillors? This is not yet clear.

I hope that we will soon be able to resolve this issue. And it is an issue for us Wet’suwet’en people to resolve, not for outsiders and protesters, or for people who block railway lines in BC, bridges in Vancouver, and streets in Ontario and Quebec.

Our Wet’suwet’en Nation council is far from alone in welcoming the new pipeline. So do 19 other Nations whose land will be crossed by the line. And it is especially welcomed, for example, by the Haisla Nation on the BC coast at Kitimat.

The Haisla have developed partnerships with a whole raft of companies involved in building the pipeline, the processing plant on Haisla territory, and the export shipping terminal, shipping services, and allied initiatives. And now the Haisla are even proposing to build their own LNG processing and export plant.

The Haisla got to this point by developing true partnerships. Those partnerships started with a process of consultation — company and First Nation. And consultation has been an essential process for all the other First Nations, like mine, that approve of the LNG Canada and Kitimat LNG projects.

And, more and more, First Nations are becoming interested in equity partnerships in projects, actually owning a piece of the pie, earning a share of profits, and increasing their ability to call the shots.

TC Energy plans to sell a stake of as much as 75 per cent in the Coastal GasLink pipeline; and a group of First Nations is looking into how they might buy into the project. And there are three First Nations groups who are exploring buying at least 51 per cent of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline project.

So how does the process of consultation work? It begins with building relationships. It begins with building trust, two-way trust.

It begins with the company listening and learning, not barging in with a PowerPoint show and announcing that “Here is our plan.”

Here’s a good, and true, example of how not to do it: An oil pipeline company set up a first visit to an affected First Nation. The CEO brought PowerPoint slides, boxes of documents and copies of engineering studies, and announced: “I’d like to show you our plan.”

The First Nations councillors in the room remained dead silent. After what seemed like an endless pause, the elected chief of the Nation said simply: “You have no plan.”

“Oh, yes,” the CEO replied. “We have had the best engineers working on the plan for almost two years. I have brought copies of it for you.”

Another silence. And eventually the chief said: “You don’t understand. You have no plan until we have a plan.”

It used to be that a company . . . oil, gas, pipeline, mining, forestry . . . could walk onto unceded Indigenous territory and build what they wanted, how they wanted, and then make changes in it, all with no involvement of the affected Nation or Nations.

No longer. . . .

Now you consult. You listen. You learn. You build trust. You respect the environment. This last point is essential. We First Nations people have been stewards of the environment for ten thousand years and more. It is part of our DNA.

Consent from the Squamish Nation in BC for the Woodfibre LNG project means that the Squamish became an environmental regulator of the project. There have been changes in the project because of their Indigenous environmental priorities.

So, if you’re a developer, you “build the plan” together with the First Nation. And, in the end, you need consent from the Nation.

Indeed, these days, there is no way you are going to build a big resource project without Indigenous consent.

Sure, you can always spend a year or two, or three or four, trying to get the courts to agree with you and to allow your project to go ahead. But by now, First Nations in Canada have won 300 court cases on rights and title and consultation.

It’s much better, then, to consult, accommodate, negotiate, and reach agreement.

Which is why I tell people not to be afraid of UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Ottawa and BC are planning to build the key principles of the UN Declaration into their own laws and policies. The big one is “free, prior and informed consent” from First Nations for projects on Indigenous territory.

Some business people and politicians are afraid of this. They fear that it gives any First Nation a legal veto over resource projects. They fear that it means a multi-billion-dollar project could be buried by a single, stubborn, Indigenous band member saying NO.

But the United Nations’ own definition of free, prior and informed consent does not see that, or go that far. That definition sees consent as not a black-or-white, Yes-or-No decision, but as a process in which participation and consultation are the central pillars.

And when Canada and provinces and territories adopt UNDRIP, that will actually create no new rights. The Constitution is already clear: Indigenous peoples have rights in their territories, and successive court cases have upheld these rights.

To me, UNDRIP is about basic human rights. Indigenous people have the right to clean drinking water, education, health, you name it. We have the right to have a better quality of life. And we have the right to consultation and accommodation if you want to build a mine or a pipeline or a power transmission line.

As I say, the process of consultation and accommodation has produced approval by First Nations of LNG development in BC.

And that means huge benefits to our First Nations people. Not just cheques under Impact Benefit Agreements, but training and education . . . the chance to earn a trade certification that can be used at home or anywhere in the world . . . the chance of a good career, not just a short-term job . . . the chance for First Nations companies to win contracts and revenue — and even partnerships and ownership.

Let me give you some thoughts from Crystal Smith, the elected chief of the Haisla Nation and chair of the First Nations LNG Alliance. Here is what Chief Crystal says:

  • “I want First Nations members to have the same quality of life that every other person in Canada has. I want B.C.’s First Nations to be heard and be included in the discussions which impact our territories. I want us and other First Nations to achieve their independence in order to properly and effectively care for the future of our people.
  • “And so the Haisla said yes to these projects because we have concluded they will be built responsibly for our environment and will allow our people to flourish. We said yes to these projects because we believe they will provide employment not only for ourselves but for the north. . . .
  • “We said yes to LNG Canada and Coastal GasLink, because the proponents and the Province of British Columbia have approached us from a position of respect for our nations and our people. They have respected our expertise when it comes to our territory and our culture.”

Chief Crystal spoke there of quality of life.

National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations notes that Canada and its standard of living ranks sixth in the world according to the UN Human Development Index. But apply that index and its measurements to Canada’s Indigenous people, and they rank not sixth but 63rd. That’s some quality of life. . . .

I note that the rate of unemployment here in Calgary now is 13.4 per cent, twice what it was a year ago. That’s shocking, and tragic for the people affected. But there are First Nations in Canada who have unemployment rates of not 13 per cent but 50 and 60 and 70 per cent.

What standard of living and quality of life is that?

LNG development and exports offer something of a way out of that. They offer a path to prosperity, rather than today’s poverty.

And First Nations and natural-resource developers get there through consultation based on mutual trust and respect, and through accommodation of First Nations priorities, such as environmental issues.

If you’re a developer, you can “get there from here” — through the consultation processes I have described. You listen. You learn. You build trust. You respect the environment.

And you “build the plan” together with First Nations.

Karen Ogen-Toews(Posted here 20 May 2020)