First Nations deeply mistrust energy sector: university study

CALGARY – A university study suggests Canada’s First Nations harbour a deep mistrust of the oil and gas industry, but are willing to talk energy development if it can be proven to be beneficial to them.

The study by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy surveyed 300 individuals by phone and online in aboriginal communities across the country between July 6 and July 15.

The goal was to get a better idea of how First Nations view the industry and how knowledgeable they are about energy-related issues.

One of the study’s authors said among the most notable aspects of the survey was the lack of trust aboriginals have in the oil and gas industry. A full one-third of respondents reported they had zero faith in the sector, its energy executives and in the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

“It’s not just that it’s low. It is zero. That means they are not willing to engage in a conversation,” said Andre Turcotte, an associate professor at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication.

“So it’s a real obstacle to start a dialogue. It’s more troubling than just being low trust, because you can’t start a conversation at that level.

“A lot of resources and energy have been put into trying to change the image of industry and it’s a message that whatever they’re doing is not really working.”

The release of the university paper coincided with a separate report presented Thursday by Vancouver lawyer Doug Eyford.

Eyford said that trust and reconciliation must be built between governments and First Nations. He also suggested that most aboriginal communities in British Columbia and Alberta see the value and economic opportunity in energy developments, but want work to be done in an environmentally sustainable way that respects their rights.

The University of Calgary report found the environment to be the No. 1 concern among respondents, although there was still a willingness to entertain some development.

Just under half of those surveyed disagreed that the government should prevent the development of energy infrastructure on reserves, while 51 per cent had some support for oil and gas pipelines near their communities.

University of Calgary Prof. Michal Moore, who was also involved in the report, said that gives energy companies a place to start.

“Part of that is paying more attention to the communities and finding out what are the improvements that will make those communities better off … make the people better off,” said Moore.

Turcotte said the survey gives a picture, despite its small size, of what the average First Nations individual feels about the energy sector.

“It’s not an outright rejection of any energy production. They are open to the idea if it’s done properly,” he said.

“Loud voices are not always representative of the whole population. Surveys reach out to people who don’t make it to protests … whose voices are not heard.”