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First Nations have played a central part in Canada’s national debate over pipeline projects, leading protests that have seen thousands take to the streets or building tiny homes in hopes of thwarting construction.

Behind the scenes, however, one group has been quietly refining a precedent-setting proposal that they say offers a means of protecting indigenous rights while unlocking the country’s vast oil and gas reserves: a First Nations-led pipeline .

“We did this because First Nations wanted to be able to demonstrate how to do this right,” said Calvin Helin, the chairman and president of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings and a member of the Lax Kw’alaams band on Canada’s west coast. First Nations look to buy equity in pipeline to have say in project’s future

Read more Six years in the making, plans for the Eagle Spirit pipeline envision transporting up to 2m barrels a day of medium to heavy crude oil from Alberta’s landlocked oil sands to tide water on the west coast.

The proposal still faces considerable hurdles, leading some to describe the project as far-fetched. But Helin describes it as an alternative way forward at a time when the politics around pipelines has become increasingly sensitive.

The project was launched amid complaints by some First Nations over the Northern Gateway pipelines, a proposed project that sought to carry Alberta oil to a port in northern British Columbia for export. Despite their concerns about the project’s environmental standards, the communities most affected by the proposal didn’t feel like anyone was paying attention, said Helin.

Their viewpoint was vindicated in 2016 when a court ruled that Ottawa had failed in its duty to consult with aboriginal groups. Soon after, the project was cancelled by the prime minister, Justin Trudeau.

It was a victory for First Nations, said Helin. “But at the end of the day, they weren’t opposed to pipelines. And so they came together and have led this project from the very beginning.”

The Eagle Spirit pipeline – since expanded into plans for a C$12bn ($9bn) multi-pipeline energy corridor that could include liquefied natural gas and natural gas liquids – would see First Nations become the major equity holders, giving them a share of the profits and control over its environmental model.

According to Helin, so far the project has the support of 34 of the 35 communities it would traverse. “We’ve just gotta have meetings with one community,” he said. “We’ve gone to great pains to meet with everybody, we’ve done thousands of meetings.” Shell’s tar sands operations near Fort McMurray, Alberta. The Eagle Spirit project would bring heavy crude oil from Alberta to Canada’s west coast.
Photograph: Todd Korol/Reuters His optimism belies a deep split among First Nations over whether – and how – resources should be developed on their traditional territories. Oil pipelines can be positive for indigenous people. Here’s how | Greg McIvor

Read more Indigenous peoples have been at the forefront of protests against pipelines across North America, whether it be the Dakota Access oil pipeline or the Trans Mountain Expansion.

In 2016, about 50 aboriginal groups came together in Canada and the US to sign a treaty to jointly fight any proposal for pipelines, tanker or rail projects that would carry crude from Alberta’s oil sands.

Helin pointed to the wider picture. “The thing that is lost is that each First Nation has the right to decide what it wants to do within its own traditional territory – I have no right to say what goes in their territory,” he said.

The same nuance applies to the First Nations who are backing Eagle Spirit, he added. “The leaders of these […]

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