First Nations hope TMX opening will bring prosperity

Some Indigenous communities in northern Alberta hope the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion marks the beginning of a new chapter in its relationship with Canada’s oil sands industry.

He A $34 billion pipeline project from Alberta to the British Columbia coast promises better access to export markets for tar sands producers, who are expected to reach record production this year.

The pipeline’s planned opening on May 1 is a big deal for Fort McKay First Nation, located about an hour’s drive north of Fort McMurray and home to about 800 people of Dene, Cree and Métis ancestry.

“It’s important to Fort McKay First Nation. When there’s an opportunity like the Trans Mountain pipeline, the question is, how can we really take advantage of it to transfer that opportunity to Fort McKay?” Chief Raymond Powder said in an interview.

“Because I’ve shared that with my industry partners from time to time, I told them, ‘You know, if you want to grow and expand and all that, that’s not a problem for us.'”

But Fort McKay also needs growth opportunities as the industry expands, he said.

Located right in the middle of the Athabasca tar sands, Fort McKay is the bullseye of the world’s third-largest crude oil reserve.

The First Nations community is surrounded by industrial development and the breeze can detect the pungent smell of nearby tar sands facilities. Band members like to point out the black, tar-smelling soil that lines residents’ roads and driveways here: evidence of the rich bitumen deposits found so close to the surface.

At Fort McKay, the complicated relationship the tar sands industry has with indigenous peoples is evident. The First Nation is one of the wealthiest in the country, thanks to revenue generated from impact benefit deals with oil sands developers, as well as the many nationally owned companies that serve the oil and gas sector.

As #TMX enables record oil production, #FirstNations await a new chapter. #OilsandsIndustry #FortMcKayFirstNation #TransMountainPipelineExpansion #Indigenous

Because of these spin-off benefits, the community features a beautiful long-term care facility overlooking the Athabasca River, a world-class stadium, a virtual golf facility, and other amenities not commonly found on reservations.

But Powder is quick to point out that his community’s relationship with the industry hasn’t always been so rosy.

“When we go back to the history of who Fort McKay is, we didn’t actually initially start out with a good relationship with the industry due to the fact that who we are as First Nations and our identity was tied to the land,” he said.

Fort McKay also has significant ongoing concerns about the safety and environmental impact of the huge tar sands wastewater tailings ponds in the area.

“And so the arrival of the industry had a huge impact on our traditional way of life,” Powder said.

“But the silver lining of all of that is that we’ve had the opportunity to grow our programs, our services and our infrastructure.”

Not all First Nations see their industrial neighbors this way.

Eriel Deranger is a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, which is currently suing the Alberta Energy Regulator following a series of leaks from toxic tailings ponds from Imperial Oil’s Kearl tar sands facility.

She is also executive director of Indigenous Climate Action, an advocacy group focused on the water, air and health impacts of the oil sands in First Nations communities.

Deranger describes the relationship between Indigenous communities and the tar sands industry as an “economic hostage situation,” explaining that many communities see the negative impacts of tar sands development but do not speak up because there are no other economic opportunities available.

“It’s really important that we don’t get bogged down in the argument of ‘Well, if Indigenous people are business partners in driving these projects forward, then they must be fine,'” Deranger said.

“The problem is that this industry has a huge economic dominance. But we can’t keep saying we need this for our economy, because there will be no economy if our province burns down this summer due to wildfires caused by climate change.”

Tar sands development has been a double-edged sword for Indigenous communities in the past, said Justin Bourque, former executive director of the Willow Lake Métis Nation and president of Fort McMurray-based Âsokan Generational Developments, a consulting firm that focuses on specializes in partnerships between indigenous industries. .

“Philosophically, the resource has been extracted from the traditional territories of the indigenous peoples of the area. They have lived and endured the development, both environmentally and physically, and also with the growth of Fort McMurray,” Bourque said.

But looking to the future, Bourque sees growing opportunities for First Nations to participate in the oil and gas sector as share ownership models become more common, allowing communities to benefit from predictable long-term revenue streams. term.

“I think now, with reconciliation and certain ESG factors, corporations are thinking more openly about sharing a long-term relationship with Indigenous communities when and where they operate,” Bourque said.

He also noted the federal government’s recent announcement that it will offer $5 billion in loan guarantees to support Indigenous communities seeking stakes in energy and natural resources projects.

“I think it will be a hugely positive catalyst that will allow these communities to become much more active in the industry, which will only strengthen it.”

Last month, Fort McKay First Nation signed a memorandum of understanding with Suncor Energy Inc. regarding a tar sands lease development opportunity on its reserve lands.

While Suncor is still evaluating the quantity and quality of mineable bitumen in the area, if the project goes ahead, it would be the first oil sands production on reserve lands in Canada.

Powder said the agreement charts a new path for economic development on Indigenous lands and will help secure the community’s long-term future.

“It’s a pretty big deal and it’s actually a big accomplishment,” Powder said, adding that the deal will mean that if the oil sands industry grows in the coming years, Fort McKay will grow with it.

“We don’t want any limits on the opportunities for Fort McKay when it comes to industry and the benefits derived from what the Trans Mountain pipeline has to offer,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2024.

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