Indigenous groups urged to unite or risk losing out on Trans Mountain pipeline ownership
'I hate to see this opportunity go by and we're still fighting about it,' says one Indigenous leader
On stage at an Indigenous energy conference this week, Stephen Buffalo implored those wanting an ownership stake in the Trans Mountain pipeline to start working together.
If not, the president of the Indian Resource Council said there is a risk the federal government will choose to sell the project to someone else.
Three groups have expressed a desire to own a stake in the pipeline project, which would transport oil and other products from Edmonton to the Vancouver area.
"I hate to see this opportunity go by and we're still fighting about it," Buffalo said to the crowd at the National Coalition of Chiefs event, held at the Grey Eagle event centre on the Tsuut'ina First Nation near Calgary.
"Currently, by the looks of it, that's where we're going. We can't have that."
The three groups are Project Reconciliation based in Calgary, the Iron Coalition led by chiefs in the Edmonton area, and the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group based out of B.C.
The Indian Resource Council has officially endorsed Project Reconciliation, although Buffalo said his group would also support the other groups if they give a presentation.
Some Indigenous leaders have said an ownership stake in the multi-billion dollar project could provide lucrative returns and ensure the environment is protected through Indigenous monitoring of the pipeline.
"Too many of our younger people are depending on this. That's my cry," said Buffalo. "Regardless of what goes through that pipeline, if we can't own it, we are going to still be stuck."
In an interview, Buffalo said there are two main disagreements among the three groups pursuing an ownership stake in Trans Mountain. Some want to buy the project now when the price tag is presumably cheaper than when the pipeline is fully constructed, while others are only interested in buying the pipeline when it is built, so there is less risk.
The groups also disagree on which Indigenous communities should be allowed to participate.
Buffalo said some concessions may have to be made for the groups to unite.
The Trans Mountain project has already faced several years of delays and there is opposition to the project by some Indigenous communities, specifically in the Vancouver-area. The project also faces more court challenges.
This week, a B.C. First Nation and three environmental groups said they are seeking leave to appeal a Federal Court of Appeal decision that limited their ability to challenge the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in court.
Critics say the pipeline will have a negative impact on climate change, the environment, and marine life, among other concerns.
Suncor CEO Mark Little is in favour of more Indigenous ownership agreements in the sector.
"It is very important that we start doing these types of equity deals, so we can have more and more First Nations sharing in the prosperity of both the energy industry, but also of Canada," Little said to reporters.
Indigenous leaders often point to the East Tank Farm oil storage project in the oilsands region as an example of an Indigenous ownership deal that has benefited the local community. Suncor sold a 49-per-cent stake in the project to two First Nations for $503 million in 2017.
"We need all industries, all business leaders, looking for these types of opportunities as we go forward. Trans Mountain is a very significant one and so I think it's important that this push ahead and we make that happen," said Little.
In an interview, Project Reconciliation executive chairman Delbert Wapass, a former chief of the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan, said there may be a difference in philosophies between the three groups pursuing the Trans Mountain project but he doesn't think there is a disagreement or impasse.
"There has to be a realization that we have to tend to this business or this opportunity could be squandered and we could all be left holding an empty bag," he said.