Ron Tremblay, Grand Chief of the Wolastoq Grand Council in New Brunswick, said he believes Canada’s adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) gives First Nation communities veto power over natural resource projects – including TransCanada’s Energy East pipeline, which would transport oil from Alberta to New Brunswick. The $15.7-billion, 4,600-km project would deliver 1.1 million barrels a of crude oil daily to Canada’s largest refinery and an export terminal in Saint John.
Energy East would be good for New Brunswick, a province that struggles economically. The project would boost the province’s gross domestic product by $6.5 billion, add $850 million in tax revenue and create 3,800 good-paying jobs during the construction phase.
But its future is in doubt.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett recently removed Canada’s objector status to the UNDRIP. The previous Conservative government objected to parts of the declaration that they argued interfered with Canada’s Constitution and court rulings.
Hopefully the new Liberal government realizes the radical implications of fully supporting UNDRIP, even after criticizing the Conservative government for its guarded support.
As the National Energy Board has launched its two-year review of the Energy East pipeline, more indigenous leaders are declaring their opposition. The Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador passed resolutions condemning the project and the regulatory process. The organization highlighted UNDRIP’s declaration that indigenous communities have a right to “free, prior and informed consent” on natural resource projects affecting their traditional territories.
Until now, Canadian courts have granted indigenous communities clear rights to be consulted and accommodated on resource projects, but have shied away from actual veto power. Supporters of UNDRIP, including some legal scholars, contend that fully implementing the declaration would give these communities effective veto.
Granting a veto would be a recipe for extensive gridlock for projects and present significant challenges for energy development in our country. A veto would also send wrong signals when investors are already working with First Nations.
Thanks to a series of court rulings, resource companies know that early and ongoing engagement with indigenous communities is essential to getting projects off the ground.
Courts have found governments and corporations negligent of not consulting and/or accommodating indigenous communities. So indigenous communities can stop projects while legal issues get sorted out, sometimes leading business to the rethink their viability. But when projects are halted, First Nations communities are left without benefits.
First Nation communities already deeply influence how projects come together. According to the Globe and Mail, TransCanada has said that as a result of detailed feedback from First Nation and other communities, it has made about 700 route changes. TransCanada has engaged with 166 indigenous communities along the route.
Canada’s regulatory processes have tried to address indigenous concerns about resource projects, including pipelines. National Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations has said: “We want job creation and wealth creation, but not at the expense of hurting the land and the water.”
But this legitimate concern is properly dealt with through stringent environmental assessment processes. Moreover, pipelines are the safest means of transporting crude oil.
First Nations across Canada benefit from natural resource development. A whole class of First Nation and Metis entrepreneurs have grown around the resource industry.
In response to vocal indigenous resistance to pipelines, the Indian Resource Council, an organization representing aboriginal communities supportive of the oil and gas industries, has tried to have its voice heard. The group stresses how aboriginal communities linked to the energy economy are suffering due to the drop in oil prices.
Ken Coates, a researcher at the University of Saskatchewan, recently released a report for the council underlining how aboriginal communities are big players in energy and minerals development. First Nations, he said, benefit from billions of dollars in trust funds from resource development. Hundreds of aboriginal development corporations across Canada employ indigenous peoples in this sector. Resource development means jobs and opportunities.
Rather than toy with a destabilizing veto, Ottawa must work with First Nations on ensuring indigenous communities get maximum benefit from development – including ownership stakes.
Bands, in turn, should look to partner with resource companies, not kill projects that benefit all Canadians.
Joseph Quesnel is a research fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.