PODCAST: Oil and gas needed to fight poverty on Indigenous lands

National Coalition of Chiefs president Dale Swampy says reserves need more jobs from responsible energy development and fewer fly-by celebrities.

Dale Swampy is president of the National Coalition of Chiefs (NCC), a group that represents the many Indigenous communities across Canada who support oil and natural gas development.

In this Energy Examined podcast, Swampy, who is a member of the Samson Cree Nation, discusses how energy development can create jobs and opportunities for Indigenous Peoples while helping to defeat despair and poverty on reserves. He also criticizes environmental groups that go into reserves to stoke anger against oil and gas while offering no solutions.

Full transcript of podcast:

Tonya: Welcome once again to another edition of Energy Examined, the energy podcast that talks about the issues facing Canada’s oil and natural gas industry. I’m Tonya Zelinsky, your host, and I am joined today by Dale Swampy, the president of National Coalition of Chiefs and a member of the Samson Cree Nation. Welcome Dale.

Dale: Thank you Tonya.

Tonya: Thanks for coming in and joining us here today. You’ve got a lot going on these days. For most of our listeners, they may not realize that there’s a big National Coalition of Chiefs summit that’s taking place in Calgary on November the 4th and 5th. Can you tell me a little bit about the NCC? What it was formed for and what its purpose is?

Dale: Well, it was formed to deal with the crisis that a lot of chiefs have identified on reserves. It’s a crisis of poverty. We believe the symptoms of that crisis is the social disparity that currently exists – murdered and missing women, alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, the lack of education, and so forth. So we want to build the family structure back up. In order to do that, we need our people to get employed and to do that, we need to get into the biggest resource industry in Canada or biggest industry in Canada and that’s the natural resource industry.

So, we were first started by a group of chiefs that came out of the Aboriginal Equity Partnership with Northern Gateway. When Northern Gateway was cancelled, they saw that the model – even though the project was cancelled – they saw the model worked well. The coalition of chiefs could negotiate a lot better with the proponents, and the proponents would work with the group much more clearly. The majority of the First Nations near the project would be working as a group and working together to find solutions for what they required and what they’d like to see out of the project.

So we started in 2017. We had our first two conferences in 2018. We have 62 chiefs that attended our last conference. We’re hoping to get over 100 next week at our conference here in Calgary. And we’re growing from there. We’re pursuing initiatives to create opportunities for First Nations across this country.

Tonya: You mentioned the Aboriginal Equity Partnership. That was a group that had bought into Northern Gateway.

Dale: Right.

Tonya: When that was cancelled, did that have a huge impact on a lot of the communities that had signed on to that?

Dale: Oh, definitely. There was thirty-one communities – 70 per cent of the Indigenous population – that had approved and become owners of the project and were going to reap over $2 billion in benefits. A billion dollars of that would come from the equity ownership and the revenues they received from that, including a $200 million community investment fund managed over 30 years and a $200 million employment and training fund managed over 30 years. And it was important to the northern B.C. communities, especially since all of the mines and all of the lumber mills have shut down. There was not much work out there.

Most people, young people, are moving out, so, it was important for the communities to have that agreement. And when it was cancelled for political reasons, it was very upsetting, especially to those in northern B.C. to have it gone, to have opportunities gone.

Thank God LNG Canada is out there now. They’re working closely with them. Our chairman of National Coalition is also the chairman of the LNG First Nations Alliance, Chief Dan George out of Burns Lakes. They’re negotiating right now ownership in that project as well and using the model that was created by Northern Gateway and that Dan George was a part of.

Tonya: There wasn’t a lot of – I mean, I guess publicly, you didn’t hear a lot about that when Northern Gateway was cancelled, the effect it would have on those communities that had partnered with it. We heard a lot about Indigenous groups that were opposed to Northern Gateway. Do you think there is a disconnect between non-Indigenous Canadians and Indigenous Canadians about some of the issues facing communities right now? Whether it be, as you said, on-reserve poverty, partnerships in major projects, employment? Do you think the general public just, they don’t know, really, what’s happening?

Dale: Yeah, and partly it’s our fault. We never empowered the chiefs that support our industry to speak out publicly. The oil and gas industry has always been conservative, have never thought that they needed that kind of support. And if they did, thought that it would be viewed as buying support, which is wrong. We’re in this whole process to be able to get opportunities for our communities. It’s not about buying us off or giving us trinkets in order to comply to what the project’s going to do. So we were fully involved with the Northern Gateway project and we think through the National Coalition of Chiefs we can develop that model across Canada.

Tonya: Do you think that’s what tipped the scales and what’s changed? You said before that the chiefs weren’t—they didn’t feel empowered to speak out and speak in favour, maybe, of these projects. And then, bye-bye Northern Gateway. Was that the tipping point where perhaps chiefs realized we can’t be silent about this any longer? We need to own it – figuratively and I guess literally own it – and speak up?

Dale: Right. A lot of the chiefs have turned from being on the fence or not speaking out publicly to coming out—you see it with Ellis Ross. He’s supporting the natural resource industry more now than he ever did. And other chiefs in the northern region of B.C. are seeing opportunities they can provide to community members. And community members are asking for leaders to work with these industries in order to get employment opportunities.

Something you always saw in the past, but you didn’t hear about because the environmentalists and the hundreds of millions of dollars that they have, they have basically used our people, the people that are disenfranchised from society, that have a grudge against everything that’s going on now because they’re not part of it, not part of the wealth that’s created in Canada, one of the wealthiest nations in the world and they live in an area with poor housing, poor water, poor opportunities to get employment. So 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.

I mean, these are the people that live and die on the reserves, these are the people that are important to us, these are the people that we are working for to feed on reserve poverty and backing celebrity rich kids is not the way to do it.

Tonya: You spoke about, sort-of, the disenfranchised and environmentalists are, in a lot of ways, as you said, capitalizing on that, going into communities. With that, is there a level of education about what it is industry is doing or are they just kind-of going in, making statements and, because there is this feeling of disenfranchisement, and the promise of, well, as you said, maybe that $50, that now we’re seeing a disconnect within communities. They need the money, they’re angry, they’re going to go along with environmentalists?

Dale: Yeah, I mean, we were all teenagers once and most of the protesters are young people. You’ve seen that in Vancouver during our rally for TMX. And these young people have, you know, a problem with society and see the bad things that happen unless they’re employed and gainfully in a career, they’ll take up any activity that they can that they think is right. And right now it’s the environmental movement. Not realizing of course, that this is our biggest industry. It’s Canada’s biggest industry.

The economic impact of doing what we’re doing right now is starting to be felt. I think we’re going into a recession because of this movement. People are going to start to realize that this is not the way to go, and its’s unfortunate because industry at this time has been more cooperative with the First Nations than they ever have, especially throughout my career and probably for the past 150 years.

And it’s unfortunate that we’re not capitalizing on this because these environmentalists are keeping us away from it. They’re telling leaders not to speak to industry proponents and you’ve seen it with chiefs who have 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. We have third-world country type of communities in this country, a very rich country and we turn our backs from it because it’s out of sight, out of mind. I know people who have never stepped foot on any reserve in Canada because they don’t want to see that sort of thing.

We’ve gotta tell people that this is a real problem and you’ve gotta stop going out and funneling money to environmental causes or for causes to poverty in the world around us when we have poverty in our own back door. All you have to do is go in Calgary here, cross Glenmore [Trail] and you’re on the Tsuut’ina reserve and Tsuut’ina is one of the richest reserves in Canada, but still they have isolation there.

If you go farther, in northern B.C. and northern Alberta or to Saskatchewan, northern Manitoba, you’ll see the desolation that’s out there. And that’s what the chiefs want to resolve. They want to resolve that desolation and get us back into what we had, which was a strong family unit—that was the strength of our community—and build ourselves back up to where we can be a fundamental part of this economy.

Tonya: We want to be clear too that, when you’re talking about environmentalists, this isn’t a question in your mind of environment. These are environmentalists with a targeted environmental mandate. Indigenous communities are not looking to sacrifice the environment in favour of economy. There’s a balance, is there not?

Dale: Well, of course. We’re not —

Tonya: You’re not going to go destroy everything.

Dale: — we’re not bad people. I mean, we’re all Canadians. You know, the people that build pipelines are all Canadians. I know a lot of them, and they’re trying to do the best for Canada and protect us. The integrity and safety systems and environmental protection systems are incredible in Canada, a lot more than any other country in the world. 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.

Tonya: Well now you, with the National Coalition of Chiefs, this is a summit, and I should be clear that we are recording this at the end of October, and this will be airing likely just after the summit occurs on November 4th and 5th, but this is bringing together chiefs from across Canada, more than 60 chiefs at this point, who want to talk about that relationship between Indigenous communities and the oil and natural gas industry.

And these are chiefs who are typically more pro-industry than the ones we might hear about more often in the news that are anti-industry. I’ve heard you say that there’s also this misconception that you could be perceived as sell-outs. Why? Where does this come from? I don’t understand it. Why would you be perceived as a sell-out?

Dale: Well, that’s an environmental—that’s an eNGO’s rhetoric. That’s the kind of response they want their First Nations to tell their leaders. They want them to be aggressive. They’re very aggressive out there. They threaten the leaderships’ political life, to abide what they want. And it’s terrible. It’s manipulation. It’s a very, very bad thing that’s happening on our reserves.

We’re getting outside people with foreign money, going in there and telling us what to do, saying that they speak on our behalf and that’s just not the case. When we started this organization, we thought we may be able to get 100 chiefs in a period of five years. That was our business plan. We were surprised when 62 chiefs showed up in Vancouver. We’re surprised by the amount of response we’re getting for this conference. We think we’re going to reach 100 in less than two years.

We believe that in our discussions with chiefs across the country, that there are more than 400 that would be willing to work with the natural resource industry to get themselves out of poverty. We believe they are pro-development. They want to speak out. They’re scared some of them – one, because of the environmentalists, but most of them are coming out now because they’ve got no choice. There are just too many people dying on our reserves across Canada. 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. I’m glad to see the kind of response we’re getting. I’m glad to see leadership stepping up and I think we’re going to reap some benefits from this, some long-term relationships as well.

Tonya: So how important a role in this, I mean, obviously the NCC is this collaboration, if you will, of Indigenous and industry. How important a role does proper Indigenous consultation and partnership play in the successful development of oil and natural gas in Canada?

Dale: Well, I think we’re moving in a step in the other direction. I think we’re changing the way in which business is done. And, I think we’re not going to proceed in the near future with a project where, you know, a group of large industry proponents decide to develop a project and start to hire a whole group of professionals to go out there and consult with First Nations.

I think we’re gonna deal with it, a different type of model: and that is, that we’re going to be proactive, the chiefs are going to be proactive. So when they see an opportunity developing within their region, I think it’s going to be First Nations-led. I think the next pipeline you’re going to see be First Nations-led.

You see it with TMX, with the amount of communities that want to buy into that. You see it with LNG Canada, how many communities that want to get more ownership of that, long-term relationships. So, I believe that the next gas and oil pipeline, the next refinery, the next large oilsands project, the next fracking initiative is going to be led by First Nations.

And we are there to encourage that. We are there to develop a venue to allow them to discuss these initiatives, to communicate across Canada the kind of programs that are available in other provinces and to say to First Nations, ‘Hey look, you’re not bound by your treaty lands or by your traditional territory – we can start building projects outside of your region as a group, as a coalition that speaks for their communities and gets opportunities for their communities and work.

Tonya: So it sounds like to me – obviously a lot of people who are listening might be thinking, ‘oh, that’s great, Western Canada is filled with resources and that’s where the hub of the oil and gas industry is’ – but this sounds like this could allow communities that are not based in Western Canada, who are working within this coalition, to have a stake in energy development and how it proceeds going forward.

Dale: Right.

Tonya: Do you ever see a point where, beyond a partnership, that perhaps we’re seeing more and more Indigenous businesses and companies taking that lead role and maybe you’re developing your own resources?

Dale: Right. And I think that’s the whole purpose of getting pro-development chiefs together. We want to be involved with the biggest industry here in Canada right now, and that’s controlled by the large oil and gas industries, natural resource industries and mining and lumber as well, nuclear power, hydro, those types of industries.

As we get further and further into partnerships and become part of industry, we’re going to see opportunities. And when we see opportunities, we don’t want to go hat in hand to the big proponents, we want to be able to develop it on our own. And I think we can do that. And that’s basically our purpose.

And when we can do that sort of thing, then we can provide real employment, real management positions to First Nation people, and regain our respect and regain our mothers’ and fathers’ respect so that their kids can go to school, can wake up on time.

You know, that’s our biggest problem. We spend so much on education but the money we spend on education doesn’t count if we don’t have our parents waking up our children to get to school. And that’s our biggest problem on reserve, is our inability to get our kids to school, to get them high school educations. And when you’ve got them wandering around the streets doing nothing and some environmentalist comes in there and says, ‘you’re going to save the world,’ why not hop into that bus, you know?

So we’re trying to get away from that and get them on track, building Canada and building a better nation, building a better group of people within our reserves.

Tonya: I have to take this opportunity to ask you of course, we had our recent federal election, I’m not sure if you’re aware, that took place here in Canada and we saw the Liberal government re-elected as a minority. But among the priorities the first time around and I’m sure this time around is reconciliation. Does that translate into the government acting on behalf of Indigenous communities and negotiating with the oil and natural gas industry, or is that really a relationship that should really be between the parties involved – Indigenous and industry, and the government needs to stay out of that?

Dale: Well, I think the government can provide some assistance, but you’re right, reconciliation is all about being able to get extra consideration to be able to access more opportunities in the natural resource industry. And this consideration is for employment and training to allow us to get more people to work, to give us consideration in being able to transition our people who, some people who haven’t worked for quite some time, to be able to get them into the system of the working and career life and to excel in that. Get consideration for opportunities to develop natural resources through grants and so forth. I think in the end it’s really about industry working together with First Nations to develop our natural resources and to develop them in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.

Tonya: It sounds like industry’s buying into this as well and so are the provinces. Looking at the agenda for the summit November 4th and 5th, you’ve got Alberta premier Jason Kenney, you’ve got energy minister Sonya Savage, you’ve got members of the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, Project Reconciliation, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers: it sounds like there is a strong desire for both sides to come together and find some solutions here and help end on-reserve poverty, and help promote economic reconciliation in the communities. Is this, I know this is the third summit you’re having in total, is that correct? This will be the third time chiefs have gotten together?

Dale: That’s correct.

Tonya: This is not going to be the last time you’re coming together, right?

Dale: No, we plan on making this an annual event. We plan on making the National Coalition of Chiefs a body to be able to promote major project development.

If there’s a project within a certain area in Canada, we are hoping that in the future we’ll have members that are within the National Coalition of Chiefs, active members, that will come out to the collective and say, ‘help us develop this project.’

That’s the whole purpose for our organization is to be able to go out there and say, you know when a chief is on the fence about a project, saying you know, ‘what if I do approve this? Are there any other people that would support that kind of action?’ And, we’re there to say, ‘yes, yes there are and it’s us. And we’ll give you a hand up in being able to create a model, create a partnership agreement with a proponent that helps both the industry and the proponent to maximize the benefits that are received from this project.’

Tonya: Well, I wish you much luck for the upcoming summit. It sounds like it’s going to be very interesting. And I hope that in the future as things move on, maybe you’ll come back and we can chat again a little bit about the progress that’s been made.

Dale: That’d be great.

Tonya: Thank you so much Dale. Thank you listeners, for checking out another Energy Examined podcast. Stay tuned. We have more in the cooker coming down the line and we’ll talk to you all later. I’m Tonya Zelinsky. Have a great day.

In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Dale Swampy President, National Coalition of Chiefs