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A Path Out of Poverty

The National Coalition of Chief’s Dale Swampy on Why Natural Resource Development is Key for First Nations Prosperity

National Coalition of Chiefs Energy and Natural Resource Summit 2019: Dale Yakiwchuk (Total Energy Services) and Late Chief Jason Goodstriker.

There exists a persistent view, held by large portions of the Canadian public and government, that First Nation communities in Canada are largely opposed to oil and gas development. That they want nothing to do with it because of environmental, social and other factors. That their opposition is unequivocal when it comes to developing natural resources.  

This view is patently wrong, as previous issues of this publication have demonstrated. Many Indigenous communities are in fact energy industry-supportive and pro-development. With the goal of defeating on-reserve poverty, they not only support oil and gas development, they want to be a part of that development. They want a seat at the table. 

Such is the mandate of the National Coalition of Chiefs (NCC), an organization of First Nation Chiefs from coast to Canadian coast, formed in 2017 in response to the federal government’s cancellation of the Northern Gateway pipeline. Its goal is to end the poverty crisis and social despair that currently exist in First Nation communities across Canada, by creating mutually-beneficial relationships among First Nations and energy industry leadership.  

“Unfortunately, we’ve got this environmental movement that is spreading a lot of disinformation and it’s not only hurting the natural resource industry, it’s hurting First Nations,” laments Dale Swampy, president of NCC. “I believe 80 per cent of Chiefs across this country want to be part of the natural resource industry. And it’s not just because of the opportunities that will bring them out of poverty. It’s because they feel safe.” 

Swampy is from the Samson Cree Nation, 100 kilometres south of Edmonton. Steeped in the oil and gas industry for the past 50 years (the Nation owns the Bonnie Glen deposit, one of the largest in North America), the Samson Cree Nation has fared very well, largely thanks to energy development. Today, the band owns about a billion dollars’ worth of assets and some 28 corporations, including a bank and an insurance company. It is the second largest private landowner in the province.  

“We have our Kisoniyaminaw heritage trust fund, which just surpassed $500 million, and an education trust fund that helps put secondary students through their studies,” he says. “Per capita we have one of the highest undergraduate degree rates in the country, compared to other First Nations. But at the same time, we have some 70 per cent of our people still on social welfare. The social ills that exist across the country with First Nations exist on our reserve as well.”  

Swampy worked for his band for 22 years, gaining a solid sense of First Nations’ needs in terms of infrastructure projects, employment, training and socioeconomic improvements.  

“The things we need for our communities are directly tied to the family structure,” he says. “We need to rebuild our family structure to where it once was, which was one of our biggest assets. We’ve also been working towards building life skills to get our people employed. It’s difficult though when there’s not much employment in the area of most of our reserves across this country.”  

One reason why partnering with resource development companies – who do work in the vicinity of many First Nations – makes so much sense. “I’ve seen the kind of commitment these companies have to integrity, safety, protecting the environment,” Swampy says. “If Chiefs take the time to meet with the proponents of major projects in the natural resource industry, they will see the time, effort and resources they put towards environmental protection, integrity and safety.”

It was from a major resource project – the Northern Gateway pipeline – that the NCC originated. Swampy and several Chiefs worked with Enbridge, the pipeline operator, to build a long-term, mutually-beneficial relationship. The agreement eventually reached between nine producers, Enbridge and 31 out of 40 First Nations along the pipeline corridor, was to gift the First Nations involved 15 per cent equity in the project. 

“They were also able to negotiate $2 billion worth of benefits from the project, including a community investment fund, direct awards, an employment and training fund, and the hiring of 31 Indigenous environmental monitors who would work for Enbridge for the 30 years of operations (one person hired from each community),” Swampy continues. 

“The 15 per cent equity was offered clear across the board for all of the 40 corridor communities,” Swampy explains. “Thirty-one ended up signing up. But [Prime Minister] Trudeau refused to meet with us to hear about it.” In November 2016, when Trudeau canceled Northern Gateway, the Chiefs were furious.

It was the Northern Gateway experience, Swampy reflects, which formed the basis for the NCC. “If you would have asked me in 2005 if the NCC would work, based on my own experience with Chiefs across the country, I would have said no,” Swampy continues. “It was very difficult for First Nations to work together. But the model we saw with Northern Gateway really brought out a lot of positive things. First of all there was no lead First Nation who got more than others. Even the Metis were given an equity opportunity in the project. The leaders were working for the common good.”  

By the time Coastal GasLink (CGL) pipeline was going through final investment decision, the support of the NCC and affected First Nations was almost a given. “Every one of the Chiefs along the CGL route has signed on, they know how valuable the benefits are,” Swampy says. “And they’re convinced it’s safe, which is the important thing.”

The NCC is supportive of First Nations involvement in many types of resource development. It has publicly supported a coalition of uranium mining companies in Northern Saskatchewan who have committed to Indigenous inclusion; the Grassy Mountain Coal Project in Southern Alberta (supported by the Piikani First Nation and Stoney Nakoda First Nation); a First Nations coalition in Northern Ontario trying to build a transmission line; the billion-dollar deal between a coalition of Mi’kmaq First Nations in Nova Scotia and Premium Brands of B.C. to purchase Clearwater Seafoods; and the Mi’kmaq coalition involved in Pieridae Energy’s Goldboro LNG Project.  

It was also highly supportive of the Keystone pipeline as well as the proposed purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by various Indigenous groups.  

“We’re also supporting a blue hydrogen project in Southern Alberta involving a group of 14 First Nations to develop an Indigenous hydrogen hub in Calgary,” Swampy says. “We’re promoting a sustainable community plan that we want to incorporate across this country. A plan that generates our own electricity (through gas power, green energy projects, whatever) in regional coalitions. Then we’ll develop water companies that would upgrade, clean and maintain our water on a regular basis. Plus wastewater and solid waste systems.”

“We don’t want handouts,” Swampy concludes. “A land claim for hundreds of millions of dollars doesn’t help the First Nation guy on the reserve who’s uneducated and unemployed. We need long term economic strategies to become producing Canadians.”

The NCC is hosting the Energy and Natural Resource Summit from June 5 to 6 at the Seven Chiefs Sportsplex & Jim Starlight Centre on the Tsuut’ina Reserve. The Summit is an opportunity for industry leaders to come together with pro-development First Nation Chiefs to bridge the gap and be able to work together to get projects going and competed.