Small number of First Nations thwarting opportunity for many more First Nations

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, June 12, 2019
Small number of First Nations thwarting opportunity for many more First Nations

On June 18, when the federal cabinet discusses whether to proceed with the Trans Mountain pipeline, they should bear in mind the real interests and opinions of First Nations. The highly visible opposition of some British Columbia First Nations to pipeline construction has created the impression that all Indigenous people are opposed. That impression, however, is false. Forty-three First Nations and other Indigenous groups support Trans Mountain, while only 12 signalled their opposition in the Tsleil-Waututh litigation. All 20 First Nations along the route of the Coastal GasLink pipeline, which has been planned to feed LNG exports from Kitimat, endorse that proposal, apart from some internal disagreement within the Wet’suwet’en.

First Nations’ right to be consulted has enabled them to negotiate lucrative mutual benefit agreements (MBAs) with the proponents. Although many details remain confidential for business reasons, such an agreement typically offers a First Nation several million dollars up front, plus tens of millions over the life of the pipeline. First Nation supporters of Coastal GasLink will also receive large cash payments from British Columbia’s resource revenue sharing policy. MBAs also include valuable guarantees of employment, job training, and contract set-asides, which in the long-run may be worth more than the cash.

The First Nations who have negotiated these MBAs are characterized by small population, remote location and low income. The mean family income of First Nations supporting these pipelines is half or less than for the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia in which they are situated. Their average Community Well-Being Index is also 20 points or more lower, on a scale from 1 to 100, than their provincial averages.

If you went looking for people who could benefit from more economic opportunity, you would immediately notice these First Nations. Yet they do not have the same chances for hospitality industries and real-estate development as urban First Nations. Natural resource development is their best and perhaps their only chance to escape poverty. For them, pipelines could become lifelines. In contrast, the smaller number of First Nations who oppose pipelines are mostly located on the coast, especially near Vancouver, where they have other economic opportunities. The Tsleil-Waututh and Squamish First Nations, who have been prominent in the opposition to Trans Mountain, are active in real estate development. Squamish also has a lucrative contract with a small LNG export facility.

Ironically, the opportunities created for many First Nations by pipeline proposals are being blocked by a smaller number of more fortunately situated First Nations. This is a general problem of long, linear projects such as pipelines, railways, highways, and electric power transmission lines. Proposals, especially for pipelines designed to bring hydrocarbons to the coast for export, are of no value unless they can be completed from beginning to end.

First Nations’ right to be consulted has been developed by the courts in the context of individual proposals such as mines and oil wells, forestry clear-cuts, and ski resorts. The courts have not yet faced up to the complexity of corridor projects involving dozens of First Nations. Analogous problems in the wider economy are resolved by government power of expropriation with compensation for easements or other takings. Existing expropriation legislation, however, does not apply to First Nations’ lands.

Allowing interested First Nations to buy an ownership share in Trans Mountain may help to break the impasse, but some combination of federal legislation and judicial decisions will probably also be required. Otherwise a small number of First Nations, in concert with green activists and NIMBY politicians, may continue to frustrate the hopes of many more First Nations for a better life.

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