Pipeline company CEO says Alberta premier supports an Indigenous rights challenge to Ottawa's regulatory laws

Alberta could play a role in planned Indigenous rights-based court actions against Ottawa's environmental review and tanker ban laws, according to the CEO of an energy company that says it has the backing of 35 northern Alberta and B.C. First Nations for a new oil pipeline.

Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings CEO says planned challenges to target tanker ban, new environmental review law

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks to the media in Edmonton on Oct. 22. (Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press)

Alberta could play a role in planned Indigenous rights-based court actions against Ottawa's environmental review and tanker ban laws, according to the CEO of an energy company that says it has the backing of 35 northern Alberta and B.C. First Nations for a new oil pipeline.

Fred Schneider, CEO of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings, said the company is involved in plans to launch Indigenous rights-based court action challenging the Liberals' new environmental approval process, the tanker moratorium along the northern B.C. coast, and the jurisdiction of the Canada Energy Regulator. 

Bill C-69 overhauled the environmental regulatory process and replaced the National Energy Board with the Canada Energy Regulator. Bill C-48 placed a moratorium on tankers along B.C.'s northern coast. 

Schneider said he has discussed the potential legal action with both Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and Alberta's Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson. 

"Premier Kenney wants to pursue the tanker ban, it's just another case of not being consulted," said Schneider.

"We are going to be working with [the Alberta government.] We have outside capital coming in, whether we act unilaterally or with them, that will probably be up to the premier, whatever he thinks best, we will do."

Schneider said one source of funding could come from the $10 million litigation fund recently created by Alberta to back First Nations legal actions in favour of resource development.

CBC News contacted both Kenney and Wilson's offices for comment. Wilson's office responded with a statement saying that the litigation fund was in its early stages and that successful applicants would be announced publicly. 

Wilson's Chief of Staff Riley Braun has also been involved in reaching out to some B.C. lawyers with First Nations clients, pitching the litigation fund, according to a copy of an email from Braun to a B.C. lawyer, obtained by CBC News.

Braun would not comment on the issue when contacted by CBC News. 

"The conversation you are referring to was a private call," said Ted Bauer, press secretary for Wilson, in an emailed statement. 

Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings chairman Calvin Helin, left, and CEO Fred Schneider in an Oct. 22 photo posted by Calvin Helin on Twitter. (@CalvinHelin)

Schneider said Eagle Spirit is planning to build a pipeline, backed by 35 First Nations, to carry partially processed crude oil from Fort McMurray, Alta., to Hyder, Alaska, for shipping to Asian markets.

He said the company has bought a port in Hyder and they have support from the Alaska governor and lawmakers. The company chose Alaska after the Liberals passed the tanker moratorium which blocked their initial plan to ship oil out of northern B.C.

Challenges still in planning stage

Schneider said the planned court challenges would be filed in the coming months. He said the legal work picked up speed following the re-election of the Justin Trudeau Liberal government.

"We intend to pursue legal action against the government on a number of issues," said Schneider. 

Schneider said some of the actions would be constitutional and some would be seeking damages. 

"We are going to target the legality of imposing [Canada Energy Regulator] regulations on First Nations lands, for starters, and the lack of consultation, because there was absolutely none," he said. 

"We are speaking of the 35 First Nations that signed off on our right of way. Not one of them were asked about the NEB, BIll C-69 or Bill C-48.... It was rammed down our throats."

Schneider said the list of 35 First Nations would be revealed in due time.

Schneider said they still have to determine whether the energy firm or the First Nations, either as a group or individually, would be filing the court actions.

The Lax Kw'Alaams band, near Prince Rupert, B.C., has been linked in past press statements to Eagle Spirit's project as a potential shipping point for the oil pipeline. Now that the route is headed to Alaska, Schneider said it still could be an end-point for a potential LNG project. 

The band's current leader, Mayor John Helin, was a former board member and northern adviser to the company. He stepped down from that role about four years ago after he was elected to lead the community. 

'Everything is sort of on hold'

Helin said Lax Kw'Alaams filed a constitutional court challenge against the tanker ban in 2018, but they've taken no further action since and the community has to decide on how to proceed following a planned Nov. 19 election.  

"Everything is sort of on hold and we'll go from there," he said.

John Helin, the elected leader of the Lax Kw'alaams Band near Prince Rupert, says community will decide on next steps after an election in November. (Duncan McCue/CBC)

Helin said he has not yet been approached by the Alberta government about the litigation fund.

"That is always a challenge, getting resources to fight the federal government," he said.

He said any involvement with Eagle Spirit's proposed projects would have to be approved by the community.

"It's not a real proposal right now. We have to see something that is real and then go from there," he said.

Kwadacha First Nation Chief Donny Van Somer was named as a supporter of the Eagle Spirit project in a 2015 press release.

Van Somer, whose community sits about 570 km north of Prince George, B.C., said the community is no longer part of the project.

"We've kind of politely told them not at this time," said Van Somer. "We are kind of holding back on that … we are not doing anything with them."

Van Somer said he wasn't involved in any plans for court challenges "at this time."

He also said he has not received any overtures through lawyers or the Alberta government about the litigation fund.


Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him