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Divided Reconciliation: Canadian First Nations and Their Bid to Take Back Control

Divided Reconciliation: Canadian First Nations and Their Bid to Take Back Control

. 3 min read

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has long been plagued by the development of the Trans-Mountain pipeline, a project which would deliver crude oil from the tar sands in the province of Alberta to the Western coast of British Columbia for distribution on the world market. Back in 2018, the Trudeau government acquired the pipeline from North American energy company Kinder Morgan for CAD$4.5 billion, and since then the federal government has faced numerous difficulties breaking ground on the pipeline. The main pushback on this project has come from environmental groups in the climate-conscious province of British Columbia. Perhaps the most vocal opponents of the pipeline have been Canada’s First Nations groups, who as traditional custodians of the land have long advocated for more sustainable practices in their ancestral territories.

Interestingly, a counter-movement has emerged from what at first appeared to be a unified First Nations front opposing the pipeline; several First Nations groups want to buy shares in the Trans-Mountain pipeline, so that they too can benefit from some of the economic prosperity the project is supposed to generate. Two of these groups, Project Reconciliation and the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group, have expressed their desire to purchase a majority share in the enterprise, putting First Nations groups firmly in the driver’s seat moving forward. As majority shareholders, these under-represented groups would be able to direct development along less invasive routes and would have the power to choose to avoid important sources of freshwater for their communities. Furthermore, the profits from the pipeline would be able to be invested back into First Nations communities, many of which still suffer from severely under-developed infrastructure. A successful bid on the part of either of these First Nations groups could be an important step towards building their economic prosperity independently from the Canadian government, as experience has shown that indigenous communities cannot rely on the federal government to meet their most fundamental needs: many remote First Nations communities do not have access to clean water, and also suffer from food and electricity shortages. This is but the latest in a long line of injustices that have been meted out against Canada’s indigenous population, and the government has continuously failed to take substantive action. The economic self-empowerment offered by the Trans-Mountain pipeline would give First Nations a sustainable alternative to waiting for a seemingly indifferent government to take action, giving them the opportunity to build prosperity on their own terms.

This bid, however, remains hotly contested even within Canadian First Nations communities, as Project Reconciliation and the Western Pipeline Group are separate groups who both want to own a controlling share of the pipeline. Their prospective rivalry has some interesting geopolitical implications, as Project Reconciliation is based in Saskatchewan, a province the pipeline will not have to pass through, while the Western Pipeline Group represents British Columbia First Nations who are located along the planned path for the pipeline. As such, the latter group will be the ones subjected to the inconveniences and potential harms of pipeline development while the former will not, and the question which arises is whether these risks should entitle them to preferential treatment for any bids they choose to submit. It seems unfair to First Nations people in British Columbia for them to be exposed to all of the risks while another group reaps all of the benefits, but it would also be problematic for the federal government to formally exclude interested investors from neighbouring regions.

All of this interest in the stalled Trans-Mountain pipeline project has surfaced at critical time, with the federal election taking place on October 21 of this year. Selling a substantive share to First Nations groups could have helped alleviate some of the pressure the Trudeau government has been taking from environmental activists for its continued support for the pipeline, since his party claims to be a climate-conscious political party, but the window of opportunity has come and gone with no new developments. Now, with the possibility of a change in government leadership looming, the future of the Trans-Mountain pipeline and First Nations’ involvement remains as uncertain as ever.