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First Nations-led groups offer hope of rescuing pipeline projects

There are those who believe no future energy pipelines can ever be built in Canada because of the unrelenting opposition from First Nations communities.

While some people will lament all the good jobs and golden economic opportunities being lost because of such intransigence, others will say this is only a just outcome considering how badly Indigenous Peoples have been ignored or overruled in the past when their traditional lands were at stake.

But the latest developments in two of western Canada’s most prominent and controversial pipeline projects may happily disprove all these assumptions.

The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, which was stopped in its tracks in part by Indigenous opponents, and the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which is being seriously challenged by some native groups, may have found new routes forward to British Columbia’s Pacific coast and markets in Asia.

And the business people working overtime to perform this audacious rescuing act are themselves Indigenous.

Last week, a newly formed group that represents 20 elected First Nations councils in B.C. stepped forward with a bid to purchase a 22.5 per cent stake in TransCanada Corp.’s Coastal GasLink project that would carry liquefied natural gas through the province.

Meanwhile, another First Nations-led group is trying to put together an offer to buy a 51 per cent stake in the Trans Mountain oil pipeline, which the federal government purchased for $4.5 billion last May. Appropriately enough, this group of Indigenous investors is called Project Reconciliation.

How intriguing it is to imagine that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Canada could come together more often as partners instead of adversaries, as communities that share common goals and then share the benefits that come when those goals are achieved. How wonderful it would be if Project Reconciliation delivered on its name.

And that very real possibility is what makes such First Nations ventures so exciting. When the Trans Mountain pipeline was first built back in the early 1950s to transport oil from northern Alberta to the B.C. coast, the Indigenous communities along the route were essentially powerless bystanders. Their legitimate feelings and fears about a project that would traverse their ancestral territories and carried significant environmental risks meant next to nothing.

But what’s happening out west with the Coastal GasLink and Trans Mountain pipelines suggests we can break free from an unfortunate past and move into a better future by managing megaprojects more co-operatively.

The First Nation Leadership Group, which represents numerous B.C. band councils, wants to become a co-owner of Coastal GasLink, and pipeline officials are cautiously receptive to the possibility. As for Project Reconciliation, it’s inviting all First Nations in Saskatchewan, Alberta and B.C. to participate.

These are still early days. But both investment initiatives offer hope. Canada is staggeringly rich in natural resources which provide hundreds of thousands of well-paying jobs and substantial government revenues that help fund the social services Canadians consider their birthright. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, however, to develop and market these resources.

What if instead of merely being asked for their acquiescence — the elusive social licence politicians talk about — Indigenous communities joined in to become investors, engineers, managers, construction workers and pipeline operators in these megaprojects?

And why not? This could be what reconciliation that works in everyone’s interest truly looks like — a handshake between equals.

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