First Nations deeply involved in natural resource development: study

Canada’s First Nations have a stake worth hundreds of millions of dollars in resource industry development and are likely to call more of the industry’s shots in the future, concludes a research paper.

“There is not going to be a very substantial expansion of the resource sector in Canada without full partnerships with indigenous Canadians,” said Ken Coates of the University of Saskatchewan.

Coates wrote the report for the Indian Resource Council, an aboriginal group that represents First Nations oil and gas producers.

Coates notes that aboriginal opinion on new energy, pipeline and mineral projects reflects the same splits in the rest of Canada.

He writes while many “connected to broader environmental and climate change protesters” oppose such developments, others welcome well-regulated proposals.

Coates cites several examples of bands that have prospered. Saskatchewan’s Meadow Lake Tribal Council controls companies that earn up to $80 million and employ nearly 200 aboriginals through work with uranium mines.

Alberta’s Onion Lake band owns 400 oil wells that pumped 14,000 barrels in 2014.

Other First Nations have taken equity positions in projects proposed for their traditional lands, such as the 35 per cent ownership share offered B.C.’s Haisla band in the Kitimat LNG plan. The band sold the option and reinvested the money.

Coates writes, however, that owning service businesses and equity stakes has not yet brought much in the way of control.

“Equity ownership rarely includes First Nations representation on the corporate board of governors,” he said.

As well, aboriginal equity in the resource sector is dwarfed by the amount of money in play. Suncor, Canada’s largest energy firm, is worth nearly $43 billion.

But companies — driven by a series of legal judgments — are slowly accepting the need to include aboriginals earlier and earlier in the process, said Coates.

“The known rules now include First Nations and indigenous engagement. Any company that wants to do business in Canada should know now that early involvement of the indigenous population is the only way to go.”

Representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, as well as those from a number of bands contacted by The Canadian Press, were celebrating National Aboriginal Day and not available for comment.

Coates’s report comes as Canada debates projects such as pipelines that cross many First Nations communities.

Reformed environmental approval “at the highest level possible” would go a long way toward reigniting those stalled projects, Coates suggests. So would a set of federal-provincial-First Nations financial agreements.

Sharing resource revenues with aboriginal governments is increasingly widespread. In the three northern territories, Coates said, it’s already the law and is likely to become standard practice.

Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall leads the only province that actively opposes resource-revenue sharing.

Coates said it’s a mistake to think aboriginals are automatically opposed to resource development. He said Canada has a chance to bring its resources to market with the consent and full participation of First Nations.

“The way it’s going to go is real, substantial sustained partnerships,” he said. “This is the way of the future.”

Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960