Energy projects offer First Nations road out of poverty

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Appeared in Waterloo Region Record

The recent protests in New Brunswick against proposed hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has put a spotlight on the Elsipogtog (Elsi-book-took) First Nation, which has been extremely vocal in its opposition to proposed shale gas exploration. But however sincere these protests, they are ultimately misguided.

The protesters fail to recognize the opportunities that could be available to the Elsipogtog First Nation from shale gas exploration and extraction. The unemployment rate among the Elsipogtog First Nation is 32 per cent, that in a a community of approximately 1,900 members with a median age of 25. With an unemployment rate comparable to countries such as Afghanistan and Mali, there is clearly an opportunity to bring prosperity to this young, growing and unemployed community through positive partnerships with resource development.

Yet the statistics of Elsipogtog First Nation are not unique. In fact, the data paints a similar picture for Aboriginal communities across the country located near proposed oil and gas projects. In British Columbia, for example, 28 per cent of B.C.’s First Nations communities stand to benefit from the seven major oil and gas projects currently proposed and the average unemployment rate for these communities is a staggering 33 per cent. In Alberta, where 44 per cent of First Nations can benefit from the five proposed oil and gas projects, the average unemployment rate for these communities is 27 per cent. While these First Nations represent a highly unemployed population, they also represent one of the youngest demographics in the country. The median age for First Nations communities is 26 years of age compared to 41 for non-aboriginal Canadians.

Two points are clear from these statistics; first, every proposed oil and gas project in Canada affects at least one First Nation’s community and secondly, these young and highly unemployed communities are sorely in need of jobs. Oil and gas development can provide those jobs and a way out of poverty and into prosperity.

While there are obstacles to overcome, such as education levels and specialized skills training for community members, solutions can be derived from successful partnerships between oil and gas developers and First Nations. One such example is the partnership between Haisla Nation and Chevron Apache, which is supporting a $360 million liquefied natural gas project in British Columbia. It’s estimated that project will provide more than 5,000 construction and 450 operational jobs once completed.

For many remote and rural First Nations communities, oil and gas projects may be the only proposed economic development opportunity in their area and can be a lifeline out of dependency and into prosperity. And for communities such as Elsipogtog First Nation, who have a young and highly unemployed population, partnering with resource development can be a way to lower their unemployment rate to a level which is comparable to the rest of Canada. Oil and gas development provides an opportunity for remote and impoverished First Nations community members to obtain jobs and prosperity, and these remote, unemployed communities provide oil and gas developers with an untapped labour force with boundless potential – these are unique opportunities that cannot be overlooked.

It is a given that First Nations communities revere, and demand protection of their environment, and do not want to see their landscapes ravaged or their ecosystems degraded. But it’s also a given that First Nations communities want to see gainful employment for their young people, and prosperity for themselves, their families, and their friends. Partnering with resource developers, not protesting against them, is the way to achieve these ends.

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