Will First Nations in B.C. benefit or suffer from the Trans Mountain buyout? Depends on who you ask

While some First Nations are worried about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to buy out Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline, others see it as a way toward economic prosperity.
Michael Lebourdais, chief of Whispering Pines First Nation, left, wants the Trans Mountain expansion project to get built. Dustin Rivers, known as Khelsilem, doesn't. (CBC, Thosh Collins)

With Ottawa's decision this week to swoop in and rescue the stalled Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by buying the pipeline, many wonder what the implications are for the federal government's efforts at reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

In British Columbia, some First Nations are staunchly opposed to the Trans Mountain project and have launched legal challenges. Other First Nations are in favour of the pipeline and want an equity stake.

Representatives from two B.C. First Nation communities phoned Cross Country Checkup to share their views.

Donna Oleksiuk holds a sign bearing a photograph of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, during a protest against the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion in Vancouver on Tuesday, May 29, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press)

'That's pretty cool': Whispering Pines Indian Band

The Whispering Pines Indian Band is located near Kamloops in B.C.'s Interior. It's a small community of just over 100 people, and the Trans Mountain pipeline runs directly through one of its reserves.

The community is one of over 30 First Nations along the pipeline route that reached benefit deals with Texas-based Kinder Morgan.

"We fought each other for five years and the only people that were getting rich were the lawyers," Chief Michael Lebourdais said.

Michael Lebourdais, chief of Whispering Pines First Nation, wants a stake in future Trans Mountain construction. He says it's an investment in his community. 4:02

However, in 2012, the community signed a deal with the oil company. Lebourdais has told local media the agreement was worth between $10 and $20 million over 20 years, with benefits going to elder pensions and youth programs.

"When it goes ahead, we're going to get a pipeline tax — an Aboriginal Resource tax — so we'll get that fiscal part of our First Nations jurisdiction."

When Lebourdais learned Ottawa will buy the Trans Mountain pipeline, and possibly take over construction, his reaction was simple: "That's pretty cool."

Aside from the financial benefits, he feels his community's benefit agreement greatly reduced the threat of an oil spill.

"The most important part was the environmental oversight. My engineers work with the general contractors and monitor the installation of this pipe. And they have the power to stop it if they don't like what they see," said Lebourdais.

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau speaks to the media in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

But other First Nations in B.C. are less sure the risks of a diluted bitumen spill can be avoided.

'They've violated our rights': Squamish Nation

The Squamish Nation is a group of communities located in the Greater Vancouver area, with some 3,600 members living on and off reserve. The nation has been a vocal opponent of the Trans Mountain expansion, and an elected councillor told Checkup the fight will continue.

"We have three communities along Burrard Inlet and Vancouver on the North Shore. An oil spill in our territory ­— the destruction of our land and our communities and our homes — is just a huge risk. Not just for us, but for future generations," said Dustin Rivers, also known as Khelsilem.

Dustin Rivers, elected councilor for Squamish Nation better known as Khelsilem, tells Checkup host Duncan McCue why he's against the federal government's Trans Mountain buyout. 9:22

While Khelsilem expressed disappointment with a recent B.C. Supreme Court decision which dismissed his Nation's challenge of the pipeline, he pointed out that the decision was only about provincial approval and that the First Nation is also part of the challenge in the Federal Court of Appeal.

"Part of the issue for us is that we haven't seen action from the federal government to respect our rights and they've violated our rights in the way that they've pushed this pipeline — and are trying to push this pipeline — through the territory."

Khelsilem suggests the federal government failed in its consultation on the Trans Mountain project to deal with his Nation on a nation-to-nation basis.

NDP MPs Alexandre Boulerice, left, Finn Donnelly, and Nathan Cullen, right, stand with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh during a rally against the proposed Trans Mountain pipeline project, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, May 22, 2018. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

He says Ottawa's move to step in and buy the pipeline is a further erosion of the trust relationship the Trudeau government promised Indigenous peoples.

"We won by kicking Kinder Morgan off the project and then the government has come and bailed them out. I think that pretty egregious to use taxpayer dollars," said Rivers.

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

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