Indigenous-led energy company plans GoFundMe to legally challenge federal tanker moratorium

Over the past several years, Indigenous groups have gone to court to try to stop energy projects, arguing they were not adequately consulted. But this week, a group of First Nations announced they will sue the federal government for the opposite reason.

Eagle Spirit Energy has launched GoFundMe account to raise funds for legal effort

Calvin Helin, shown in an image from the CBC TV series 8th Fire, is chairman and president of Eagle Spirit Energy. He says the company has launched a GoFundMe account to raise funds for a legal campaign challenging the federal oil tanker ban off B.C.'s coast. (CBC)

Over the past several years, Indigenous groups have gone to court to try to stop energy projects, arguing they were not adequately consulted.

But this week, an Indigenous-led energy company announced it will sue the federal government for the opposite reason.

Eagle Spirit Energy wants to build a pipeline from Alberta to northern B.C. — with backing from the Vancouver-based Aquilini Investment group — but says a federal oil tanker ban, Bill C-48, is getting in the way.

Eagle Spirit Energy has also launched a GoFundMe account to raise funds for the legal effort, said Calvin Helin, chairman and president of the company. ​

The GoFundMe campaign is attributed to an organization called the Chiefs Council, which Eagle Spirit Energy says represents 30 First Nations from Alberta to the B.C. Coast. However, Eagle Spirit has not provided a list of who is on the Chiefs Council.

Several First Nations on the proposed pipeline route confirmed to CBC they were not affiliated with the GoFundMe campaign.

Helin is critical of the oil tanker ban, which was set up in part for the protection of the Great Bear Rainforest, which he said is a "fictional idea cooked up by American environmentalists."

However, some local Indigenous voices have expressed concern, too.

Jess Housty, an elected councillor with the Heiltsuk First Nation on B.C.'s coast, has been supportive of the moratorium and other efforts to protect the rainforest and coastal waters.

 "If a pipeline were to go through, while the Nations whose territory it passes through might feel that it is positive economic development, we need to be aware that there are other Nations elsewhere whose values are put at risk," she said.

Helin appeared on the Calgary Eyeopener to discuss the project Friday. Below is an abridged version of that conversation.

Q: Your backers are the Chiefs Council and they plan to sue the federal government. Can you tell me why?

A: What's happened over the past five years is we've been essentially working on behalf of a group of chiefs from Bruderheim, [Alta.] all the way out to the northwest coast in B.C. to my community called Lax Kw'alaams. The interest in owning their own projects and being involved in projects like a pipeline came from concern for the environment.

Originally, when Northern Gateway was proposed, most of the chiefs felt, at least on the coast, there wasn't an adequate environmental plan. So we went out and hired experts throughout the world and developed what I think is probably the highest environmental model for land and ocean in the world for such a project.

...The leaders have to look at holistic development, unlike environmental groups that have a one-dimensional approach to things. First Nations leaders ... once they feel the environment is taken care of, they have to look at holistic or balanced development, where they have to consider the social welfare of their communities, they have to consider the employment opportunities and the business opportunities.

The leaders want to create their own source of revenue but they want to do it in a way in which the environment is protected, and there is a middle way.

Q: Bruderheim is about 50 kilometres northeast of Edmonton, for those who don't know, and the pipeline would go to the West Coast. But you can't really go ahead with it if you can't move it from the terminus to market, and because of the tanker ban of the federal government, you can't do that … is that the core of your issue right now?

A: That's the core of the issue. But I believe the reason why these environmental groups — and a lot of them are American-financed — they've come up here and they fly in celebrity environmentalists and they land in our communities ... they know nothing about our area, they know nothing about our regions. And they're telling us what we've got to do because it's in their financial interest to do so. We don't need trust fund babies coming into our community … creating parks in our backyard when our people are literally starving.

Q: Just so I'm clear, you've got chiefs the whole way along from Bruderheim all the way to the terminus in favour of this pipeline, and the only stumbling block right now is the federal government?

A: Yes. It's taken us five years to do this.... And with the Trudeau government coming in, he's basically said before the election the Great Bear Rainforest is no place for a pipeline. Well, the Great Bear Rainforest is this fictional idea cooked up by American environmentalists about this magical rainforest, and they've forced this on our particular community. No one in our community was even talked to about this.

Q: We're going to follow this lawsuit with great interest.

A: This is an important issue for Canadians. If you look at what's happening with the oil industry, Canadians are losing $50 million a day. It's about $40 a barrel over four years in margin to the refineries in the U.S. What other country in the world would give away the value of these resources like that? It makes no sense, and it's harming people in northern Alberta and northern B.C. and the chiefs are going to do something about it.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener, George Baker and Andrew Kurjata.