Indigenous leaders in Canada are speaking up for energy and natural resource development. Sustainable oil and natural gas production that respects traditional values and the environment is seen as a key way to deal with the crisis of on-reserve poverty.
“The majority of First Nations in this country are in favour of responsible resource development. We need jobs, own-source revenues, and business opportunities to get out of poverty,” says Dale Swampy.
Swampy is a member of the Samson Cree Nation, and president of the National Coalition of Chiefs, or NCC. He helped form the NCC in 2017 as a coalition of Indigenous leaders working together to negotiate partnerships and launch initiatives related to oil and natural gas development. The group also aims to empower Indigenous leaders to counter the narrative that all Indigenous groups are opposed to energy development.
Says Swampy, “The National Coalition of Chiefs was created to provide a strong and united voice for Indigenous leaders who support energy and natural resource projects that can help address the economic needs of our people. We are tired of activists and politicians speaking on our behalf and against our interests. Indigenous peoples have economic rights too.”
In a recent Context: Energy Examined podcast, Swampy noted that the NCC’s vision is for Indigenous communities to become equal partners in resource development.
“It’s not about buying us off or giving us trinkets in order to comply to what the project’s going to do,” said Swampy.
Swampy added that the NCC was formed in part after and in response to the collapse of the Northern Gateway pipeline project that would have seen a pipeline built along a corridor from Alberta to the West Coast through northern B.C.
“There were thirty-one communities—70 per cent of the Indigenous population—that had approved and become owners of the [Northern Gateway] project and were going to reap over $2 billion in benefits,” said Swampy.
“When it was cancelled for political reasons, it was very upsetting,” he added. “They’ve [the chiefs] seen what they’ve lost after Northern Gateway was cancelled and thought you know, ‘that’s just not right’ because when the environmentalists are gone, there’s still no place to work. You still have the social despair. They provide no solutions to our problem. And our problem is a crisis.”
Swampy also does not mince words concerning the environmental groups that have gone into reserves to enlist Indigenous youth into public protests against energy development.
“They have basically used our people, the people that are disenfranchised from society,” said Swampy. “When somebody goes in there and says, ‘we’ll pay you 50 bucks to go out and pick a fight with the oil and gas industry,’ that’s something they’ll jump on because they’re angry to start with, and I think it’s very unfair.”
At the same time, Swampy noted that the dichotomy industry opponents use of having to choose environment over the economy is a false one.
“The integrity and safety systems and environmental protection systems are incredible in Canada, a lot more than any other country in the world,” said Swampy. “And I always say, when a leader sees the kind of money, resources and time we take into integrity, safety and environmental protection, they tend to approve the project— because they know we are sincere and that industry is out there to do good, not to do bad.”
When the NCC first met in 2018, 62 First Nations chiefs from across the country attended. And with the recognition that it’s okay for Indigenous leaders to speak up in favour of energy development, the coalition has grown. Around 80 chiefs met recently in Calgary at the 2019 National Coalition of Chiefs Energy and Natural Resources Summit.
Swampy notes groups like NCC and Indigenous Strong are focused on finding ways for Indigenous communities to become equal partners and proponents in resource development—to reap generational economic benefits and help defeat the problem of on-reserve poverty. He’s looking for real solutions, not protests and publicity stunts, and he’s glad to see the NCC gaining national momentum.
“There are just too many people dying on our reserves across Canada,” he said. “It’s just getting ridiculous. We can’t spend our time riding in helicopters with rich celebrities. It helps us nothing in terms of getting us out of poverty.”