Beloved celebrity educator Bill Nye the Science Guy is the latest voice joining the chorus against continued development of the Alberta oil sands. Channeling his objections, a recent Vice News article decried the impact of industry activity on local aboriginal communities. The same article also unintentionally revealed that media coverage of this crucial economic sector is woefully lacking in critical details.
In many ways, the aforementioned article is unremarkable. It repeats the trite narrative of reckless industry exploitation of defenseless local communities, casting oil companies in cahoots with greedy politicians as the principle antagonists. The Vice News article partially covers the very real challenges facing Fort McKay – an aboriginal community in the epicenter of the oil sands – to strengthen its choice narrative.
What the Vice News article completely neglects to mention are countervailing considerations, unlike a similar story published by APTN that, while overall critical of the industry, nevertheless acknowledges the nuances of Fort McKay’s challenges. That story in part covered the historic antagonisms between industry and Fort McKay locals and how one figure – the late Chief Dorothy MacDonald – worked towards a solution where both needs of industry and community could be addressed.
“MacDonald recognized that the days of making a living off fur trading were long gone” and that the choice confronting Fort McKay was to “either attempt to live on the handouts of government or embrace the opportunities that presented themselves with the influx of industry,” according to the aforementioned story.
MacDonald remained a committed community activist while striving towards building a better working relationship with industry to facilitate the economic and social development of her community. This balanced approach very much reflects the complicated and tough bargaining process that characterizes the evolving relationship between industry and local communities. Despite the often shrill and simplistic media discourse surrounding the industry, the facts on the ground indicate a process of give-and-take, rather than a Manichean zero-sum struggle.
This is reflected in legal developments in Canada regarding resource extraction and aboriginal rights. A 2012 essay by the International Indigenous Policy Journal begins with “The Development of resources on and near Indigenous territories has many potential benefits including employment creation, wealth sharing, and improved service delivery. However, the development of oil and gas resources can also lead to economic inequality, displacement, loss of traditional lifestyles, and significant environmental damage,” the journal says. The essay in turn covers how Canada’s legal and regulatory system has evolved to balance these benefits and risks.
Statutory developments have seen a partial shift from the 1985 Indian Oil and Gas Act – which put the burden of managing aboriginal communities’ natural resources on the Crown, subject to the duty to consult said communities – to the First Nations Land Management Act and the First Nations Oil and Gas and Moneys Management Act, which together assigned some of the responsibility to the communities themselves, along with the increased opportunity to benefit from resource development. Neither of these statutes, however, abolished the Crown’s duty to consult as outlined by the Supreme Court in Haida Nation v. British Columbia/Taku.
Developing independently of – but harmoniously with – these legal developments is the rise of Impact Benefit Agreements (IBAs), which are in effect formal contracts between aboriginal communities and industry. The general thrusts of these agreements is an accommodation of interests: Local communities reap economic benefits and secure concessions to mitigate losses stemming from industry activity; industry gains invaluable local partners, which can translate into greater social responsibility standing, more efficient regulatory approvals, greater assurance to investors, and more certainty for long-term planning.
How important such agreements and the associated benefits can be to aboriginal communities should be abundantly clear from even a cursory examination of relevant socioeconomic indicators. In this context, the oil & gas industry’s continued activity is indispensable to the wellbeing of these communities.
Aboriginal communities are small and often isolated. One policy paper points out that the average size of these communities is 487. The largest is merely 5,000. Alberta – the core of industry activity – has the best aboriginal unemployment figures at 11.2 percent. This on its own would hardly constitute bragging rights, but the figures are utterly dismal for the other provinces and territories, ranging from 13.0 to 23.7 percent. The obvious reason for Alberta’s stronger aboriginal unemployment figures lies in the fact that Alberta leads the rest of Canada in energy production due specifically to the presence of the oil sands, which also happen to be located in isolated, northern locations in close proximity to aboriginal communities. A 2013 Human Resources and Skills Development Canada report indicates that aboriginals make up an average 5.0 percent of oil & gas industry jobs in Alberta, compared to their 4.1 percent share of Alberta’s age 15 and over population.
Indeed, some of the notable bright spots that rarely get any mention are the many aboriginal businesses that have sprung up to fill various niches in the oil sands. A profile of these indicates a vibrant assortment of firms engaged in activities as varied as construction, transportation, waste disposal, heavy equipment procurement, and safety components manufacture. One firm, in addition to providing dry cleaning services for industrial coveralls, also extracts incremental oil from soiled clothing.
Overall, the case for greater aboriginal and industry cooperation is perhaps best laid out by Dave Tuccaro, a leading aboriginal entrepreneur, who is a passionate industry proponent. Mr. Tuccaro argues that the way forward is for greater aboriginal participation in the upside of industry activity, and he works tirelessly to convince B.C. aboriginal groups that they stand to benefit from pipeline construction in the vicinity of their communities. “’It’s going to take time, it’s going to take people like me to go there and show them and say: ‘This is what we could do and this is what we could have,’’” said Mr. Tuccaro.
The underlying point is that there is more going on than the simplistic narrative spun around the oil & gas industry in general and the oil sands in particular. This article’s aim is not to deny that there are some actors who genuinely are unwilling to compromise nor is its aim to deny industry detractors their right to criticize or even that all their criticisms are without merit. The aim here is to challenge the false narrative pushed by an anti-industry and anti-employment agenda.
Much of the discourse surrounding the industry remains hopelessly lopsided. When audiences’ attention is everywhere and therefore nowhere, and where many people simply want to click on a story that confirms their biases, it is understandable that media actors like Vice News would give their target demographic what they want. Clicks generate ad revenue.
Bill Nye and other celebrity commentators – who are entitled to their policy preferences, even though they will never personally bear the costs of these choices – help obfuscate such biased coverage by lending the credibility of their names to a fundamentally weak narrative. To be clear, the burning questions of our time cannot be resolved by a discourse tinged with hyperbole, deliberate oversimplification, shrill polemics, or cynical moral posturing. Those who depend on the oil sands and industry for their livelihoods deserve better.
– Petur Radevski, J.D., is a business development consultant in the oil & gas industry