First Nations and resource development: friends or enemies?

While indigenous groups are usually characterized as being anti-development, many First Nations in Canada are directly involved in resource development and see it as a way to improve their living conditions and become independent. Just because First Nations are critical of the federal government and corporations operating in remote areas, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily against resource exploitation in and of itself. Accordingly, the Financial Post recently ran a story entitled, First-ever aboriginal oil sands deal built on common interests.

Even First Nations that are suing the federal government over claims that they violated treaty rights through the implementation of controversial omnibus budget bills C-38 and C-45 – Frog Lake First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation, both located in northern Alberta – are themselves involved in extractive activities. Mikisew Energy Services describes itself as “a major participant in the resource development sector for the oil and gas, mining, and forestry industries.” On its website, Frog Lake First Nations states that it has its own oil and gas drilling facilities.

Also in northern Alberta, the Horse Lake First Nation and Western Lakota Energy Services Inc. were given $1.35 million from the federal government to form an oil and gas partnership in 2005. Rather than increase funding for basic services and infrastructure, this is how the government hopes to prove that it is “committed to closing the unacceptable gap between First Nations people and other Canadians.” Former Horse Lake First Nation Chief Dion Horseman (who passed away last month – RIP) applauded the deal, saying, “Horse Lake continues to strive to diversify our economic base and we view the Western Lakota partnership as a key component to our future development. Further opportunities with Western Lakota and other entities should help secure the future for our band members.” The benefit to the community? A projected 15 direct and up to 77 indirect jobs for Horse Lake First Nation members. The band’s population totaled 938 in 2009, with 436 of those people living on reserve or Crown land.

Back in October 2012, Duncan’s First Nation Chief Don Testawich strongly criticized the Alberta government and Keyera over an oil spill and specifically, for failing to adequately inform the local communities of the impacts and failing to mitigate those impacts on the environment, on which those communities’ livelihoods depend. Testawich identified the problem as a “disregard that Alberta and the oil industry have for the environment and the rights of our community and other communities.” In particular, he cites a lack of adequate environmental legislation, which adopts a results-based approach. This is an important distinction. Greenpeace recently unearthed a letter from the Energy Framework Initiative (which represents the oil and gas industry) that asked the federal government to adjust its legislation to shift its focus from “preventing bad things from happening rather than enabling responsible outcomes.” In other words, let’s not take a preventative approach – let’s just wait until things happen and then respond to them “responsibly”.

Testawich is the owner and Corporate Director of Rig’s Oilfield Services Ltd., which is listed as a partner on the Duncan’s First Nation website.

In 2010, Duncan’s First Nation and Horse Lake First Nation won intervenor status from the Supreme Court of Canada. At issue was whether the corporations behind major oil and gas projects adequately consulted and accommodated their concerns before being granted approvals for resource development. Testawich explains, “Our traditional territory is being overrun and cut to pieces by oil sands, major pipelines, gas fields and major power projects. Companies such as Royal Dutch Shell, Trans Canada Pipelines and Bruce Power are proposing massive projects that will fuel unsustainable oil sands growth. Development on this scale is making our treaty rights meaningless and threatens our traditional way of life.”

Onion Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan is the largest oil producing First Nation in Canada. Their chief, Wallace Fox, has criticized Shawn Atleo, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, for backing the Conservative government’s assimilationist aspirations. Instead, he throws his support behind Roseau River chief Terrance Nelson. In 2007, Nelson said, “It is time to quit being loyal Canadians, we don’t need the white man’s money. We need a share of our own wealth. There’s only two ways to deal with the white man. Either you pick up a gun or you stand between him and his money.”


Ruskin Dam, BC

In December 2012, a coalition of aboriginals, farmers and environmentalists joined forces to fight BC Hydro’s planned Site C dam on the Peace River, which would flood 3,000 hectares of prime farmland. The behemoth project would count as yet another in the northern BC region, which has already seen intense resource development. Chief Roland Willson of the West Moberly First Nations responded, “Enough is enough. We need to slow down. It’s more important to maintain the integrity of what’s there than put it under water… all to expand the industrial footprint.”

Meanwhile, the Unis’tot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in BC evicted surveyors working on a natural gas pipeline project from their territory and have set up a roadblock. In a statement, spokesperson Freda Huson said, “The Unis’tot’en clan has been dead-set against all pipelines slated to cross through their territories, which include PTP (Pacific Trails Pipeline), Enbridge’s Northern Gateway and many others.”

Returning to the above mentioned Financial Post article, there are some fundamental questions to consider. The article states that the oil and gas partnership “fuels optimism that the seemingly incompatible values between aboriginals and the oil sands industry can be bridged when there is mutual benefit.”

INMconsentValues. I keep coming back to this word. It would be paternalistic to dictate to First Nations what their values are, either on a single community or collective basis. First Nations of today aren’t all going to look at these issues in the same way, and within communities we would naturally expect to see a diversity of opinion. Some First Nations don’t want extractive activities on their lands, period. Others are okay with it as long as there’s resource sharing, some control and/or fair compensation. Others still may see it as their only alternative to poverty within the current framework, or they may figure that since projects will be pushed through anyway, they might as well get their rightful slice of the pie. All of these approaches have been represented within the Idle No More movement, which broadly seeks both sovereignty and environmental integrity. You can’t take for granted that everyone at a rally will be against pipelines, mining or oil and gas exploration, even on aboriginal lands.

The largely ignored question is: How can we talk about protecting the environment while forging ahead in extracting, refining, transporting and finally burning fossil fuels? This contradiction is reflected in the letter authored by the Energy Framework Initiative, which prescribes “economic growth and job creation while continuing to ensure responsible environmental and social outcomes.”

One key observation… Non-aboriginal fossil fuel corporations aren’t advocating maintenance of the status quo. That’s not how they’ll thrive. They want economic growth. Economic growth that will spur a greater need for energy, and thus ensure a future market for their product. It’s a cyclical, self-perpetuating system that depends on a reliable source of capital. When they talk about growth, they’re not talking about workers, communities or public infrastructure. They’re talking about themselves.

Is there room for the much-touted aboriginal creed that we make every decision with the next seven generations in mind? Is resource extraction, and oil and gas development specifically, consistent with a worldview that holds that all life is sacred, that we are stewards of the land, only borrowing it and then passing it on? Is it in keeping with a philosophy according to which the very idea of owning land and exploiting resources for profit is tantamount to blasphemy and self-denial? Far from simply being a spiritual belief set, this worldview is one that sustained indigenous peoples prosperously and happily for thousands of years without causing significant damage to the environment. Is going the same route as the white man, albeit independently, nevertheless not an acceptance of the white man’s ideology, and therefore an internalized form of colonization?

Photograph by Peter Essick

Alberta Tar Sands (photograph by Peter Essick)

When it comes to fossil fuels, the issue goes beyond First Nations. We’re talking about basically every community in the world and future generations being affected by climate change in ways that could threaten their survival. No one group has a monopoly on environmental wisdom and activism. Many non-indigenous individuals and groups around the world actively oppose environmental destruction and pollution. We have a unique opportunity now in Canada to bring people of all backgrounds together. What seems clear is that human beings generally only turn to environmentally destructive practices when they are destitute or have become so separated from their natural environment or roots that they don’t understand their relationship with the environment and their impacts on it.

It’s important to note that most of the petroleum produced by the industry is exported to foreign markets. Viewed from that lens, how does fossil fuel production truly make any community – First Nations included – self-sufficient, economically stable and prosperous? These are after all non-renewable resources. Once that revenue source is tapped, where then will communities turn to generate income to sustain themselves, especially once they begin to improve their standard of living and their energy needs inevitably rise? When you are producing goods or services that other people consume, extracting only money from the process, there is no benefit in it other than to be able to buy the things you need… from corporations. True self-reliance would seem to entail producing what you need to survive yourself.

It’s difficult to understand how a community can maintain that it is following a traditional way of life while participating in extractive activities. There are, however, obvious reasons to believe that those income-generating activities are preferable to relying on inadequate government funding that is held over communities’ heads at any rate. Are some First Nations or chiefs being bought off? Are they selling out? Or are they just doing the best for their people given the circumstances?

Resource development on First Nations lands is not simply a question of whether natural resources are exploited in the first place, but who does it, how large the projects are and how they’re carried out. Generally, First Nations seek greater control over these resources and the opportunity to participate in decision-making so that impacts can be mitigated and the communities affected can be fairly compensated – at the very least. It’s one thing for First Nations to derive their revenue from controversial sources; it’s quite another that corporations are given a free pass by the government to exploit resources on First Nations lands, in clear violation of the Constitution.

Pipelines and tankers frequently leak and spill, affecting vulnerable traditional communities the most, so it’s incumbent upon people to speak out about them as Don Testawich has. But ecosystems aren’t contained within political, tribal or geographic borders, and the interrelated and cumulative impacts of projects, both big and small, native and non-native, are not very well understood, nor is there any mechanism in place for putting all of this into perspective. Our world is becoming increasingly globalized and ‘developed’; every community at some point is or will be faced with the decision to continue in this direction or to pursue alternatives, such as decolonization and degrowth. It’s clear that it’s in our best interests to make proactive decisions rather than to wait until there’s a proverbial knife to our throats, but is sustainable development possible with improvements to the economic and political systems, or is it just a pipe dream? Or is radical, fundamental change the only way to achieve prosperity and justice?

Anishnabe Prophecy of the 8th Fire

“At the time of the Seventh Fire, a new people will emerge. They will retrace the footsteps of their ancestors and will try to find those things which have been lost along the way. They will approach the elders in search of guidance. It will not be an easy task but if they are of good heart and pure intentioned they can prevail. Some elders will be sleeping and have nothing to say, others will say nothing out of fear.

The New generation must be fearless in their quest.

The Light Skinned race will be at a crossroads. If they continue down the road of Materialism, it will be their destruction and for all humanity as well. But if the Light Skinned Race chooses to join with the Natural People of this land on the Spiritual path then they will again have the chance to create a nation, the greatest spiritual nation ever to have existed.

Two other races will join these two races. Together, they will together light the 8th and final Fire an eternal fire of Peace, Harmony, Brotherhood and Sisterhood.”

I leave you with a trailer for Fractured Land, a documentary that tells the story of a young Dene law student from northeastern BC who takes on Big Oil and Gas to protect his land and people:

2 thoughts on “First Nations and resource development: friends or enemies?

  1. Informative article, Lavender. I would say that one thing absent from many analyses of Natives and resource exploitation is that the band councils are themselves comprised of capitalists. It is through the Indian Act system that the aboriginal business elite gains its power and wealth. I would also look at Hobbema as an example of what “benefits” a community can derive from resource sharing with the oil and gas industry. After the four bands there began receiving royalties they had one of the highest suicide rates in the country and have been plagued with a high rate of drug addiction and gang violence. Another example to look at, in terms of Natives and the impact of oil and gas industries, are the communities around the tar sands in Northern Alberta. They are dying from cancers they’ve never experienced, while mutated fish and other water life are regularly found. Oil and gas is a toxic industry that destroys the land and water. When Native capitalists portray themselves as environmentally conscious and as “stewards of the land” we should view them with the same contempt we have for transnational corporations who claim the same.

  2. Thanks for reading and providing your input! I agree – capitalism and traditional lifestyles are diametrically opposed. What are the solutions for First Nations today who hope to rise above both poverty and paternalism? How can any culture retain its roots while existing in a modern setting, amid a capitalist system? All I know is that if we maintain our current political and economic systems, (a) our species and this planet won’t survive and (b) in the meantime, every culture within this society will continue to subsume its own values to those favoured by the system. Maybe Idle No More is our last hope of challenging this destructive force once and for all.

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