Canada's oil industry growth can go hand-in-hand with Indigenous reconciliation: report

Canada's First Nations and the oil and gas industry have not had a smooth relationship, but a new report makes the case that a collaborative partnership could bring major benefits to both sides.

Indigenous workers should take a bigger role in business deals, says one advocate

Hereditary Chief Phil Lane Jr., centre, joins other Indigenous chiefs and elders in leading thousands of people to protest against the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain pipeline expansion in Burnaby, B.C., in March. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Canada's First Nations and the oil and gas industry have not had a smooth relationship, but a new report makes the case that a collaborative partnership could bring major benefits to both sides.

The report, released by the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the industry has an opportunity ahead of it to both support reconciliation and Indigenous self-determination.

Tim McMillan, the president and CEO of CAPP, said the energy sector has a long history of success working in partnership with Indigenous communities and businesses.

"I think that we have the opportunity to grow that success," said McMillan.

Dozens of First Nations have been openly critical of major energy projects, like the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.

Federal approval for the project was overturned this summer in part due to lack of consultations with First Nations.

If you don't extract those resources, somebody else will take them.- Clayton Blood, of Kainai First Nation

More than 40 First Nations have an agreement with Kinder Morgan, the company behind the project. But more than double that number have not signed agreements, with another dozen or so embroiled in legal battles against the expansion.

McMillan said that opposition doesn't tell the full story.

"Too often I'm given the presumption that the First Nations view is ubiquitous. That everyone has the same opinion and that it's not in favour of any given project," he said.

Clayton Blood, who works in the resource industry, said his Kainai band has benefited for decades from the energy sector, with some wells on the southern Alberta Blood Reserve dating back to 1943. 

"They are extracting resources from our lands, and traditional lands. And what we want to do is be part of they economy that they generate," Blood said.

"If you don't extract those resources, somebody else will take them."

Clayton Blood of Kainai First Nation said he'd like to see Indigenous people take a greater role in making deals in the oil industry, rather than just working on the front lines. (CBC)

Blood said the industry helps support elders' living accommodations on the reserve.

Six per cent of the oil and gas industry's workforce self identifies as Indigenous which is twice the Canadian workforce's average, according to Petroleum Labour Market Information.

And a report from the Montreal Economic Institute estimated the average wage for Indigenous people working in oil and gas extraction in 2016 was about $150,000 each year, compared with the average of $51,500 for people outside the industry.

CAPP said from 2015 to 2016, the industry invested $48.6 million in Indigenous communities and created 11,400 Indigenous jobs.

The association narrowed down five recommendations for the Government of Canada:

  • Focus on initiatives that will resolve long-standing reconciliation issues.
  • Recognize how a competitive industry can benefit Indigenous self-determination.
  • Explore opportunities to enhance Indigenous economic participation.
  • Accelerate growth of Indigenous entrepreneurship, partnerships and mentorship programs.
  • Develop greater collaboration on education and skill-development training.

Blood said while there are benefits, he'd like to see more Indigenous deal-makers in the industry, and more Indigenous-owned oil companies.

"We see oil tankers taking natural minerals out of the community and we're concerned that we'd like to be more involved on the business side of it, not just the front-line workers," he said.

Another major concern is environmental impacts to traditional lands. Last year, in one of five pipeline accidents in Canada, more than 1,200 barrels (200,000 litres) of oil was spilled on Indigenous land in Saskatchewan.

Clayton Blood said it's important his First Nation benefits from economic work being done on their lands. (Lucie Edwardson/CBC)

Sto:lo Chief Tyrone McNeil from B.C.'s Fraser Valley — where the Trans Mountain expansion would run through — told a National Energy Board hearing in Victoria this week that there are serious concerns.

"We also need an opportunity to sit down and have a bigger, broader discussion on potential impacts," McNeil said, adding that he fears the pipeline could pose risks to fish, wildlife and the Sto:lo's traditional lands.

In addition to the issues with Indigenous consultation, the pipeline expansion was put on hold due to insufficient environmental impact studies.

But McMillan said those concerns are overblown.

"In Canada, to be in the energy business, you would have to be an environmental steward in that you have to have a plan for everything you do … you have to respond appropriately, quickly, and in partnership with those that are affected, and when we're working with First Nations communities, obviously they have to be central to any incident."

With files from Livia Manywounds, The Canadian Press