PODCAST: Economic reconciliation in a post-COVID world

Karen Ogen Toews of the First Nations LNG Alliance and Wet’suwet’en First Nation discusses COVID and economic reconciliation through energy projects that create jobs, investment and partnerships.

Karen Ogen-Toews is CEO for the First Nations LNG Alliance and a council member for the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.

She chats with Energy Examined host Tracy Larsson about how First Nations have been dealing with the COVID crisis, and the lifeline that major energy projects like Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada are providing to keep members of her and neighbouring communities employed. She also talks about the need to educate Canadians about how many Indigenous groups support safe pipelines and sustainable energy projects as a means to economic reconciliation—through meaningful consultation, community investments and real partnership opportunities with affected First Nations.

Karen Ogen-Toews is CEO for the First Nations LNG Alliance and a council member for the Wet’suwet’en First Nation.
She chats with Energy Examined host Tracy Larsson about how First Nations have been dealing with the COVID crisis, and the lifeline that major energy projects like Coastal GasLink and LNG Canada are providing to keep members of her and neighbouring communities employed. She also talks about the need to educate Canadians about how many Indigenous groups support safe pipelines and sustainable energy projects as a means to economic reconciliation—through meaningful consultation, community investments and real partnership opportunities with affected First Nations.

Full transcript of podcast:

Tracy: Hello and thank you for turning on the Energy Examined podcast. I’m Tracy Larsson, and today I’m speaking with Karen Ogen-Toews. She is the CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance. Karen, thanks for joining the podcast.

Karen: Hi, good morning.

Tracy: Just to start off, why don’t you just, for some additional background, talk a little bit more about your various roles.

Karen: Currently, I am a council member for the Wet’suwet’en First Nation, and I’m also the CEO for the First Nations LNG Alliance. I’m the former chief of my nation as well. And the chief for six years as well.

Tracy: OK. Thank you. So why don’t we start with — do you want to give us a little bit of information or background on how your community has been impacted during the current economic and health crisis?

Karen: Well, I think that our community has still tried to continue moving forward, but with a very limited staff and just basically doing the bare minimum, making sure that our community members are well and that they’re safe and everyone is continuing to abide by the provincial standards that Dr. Bonnie Henry has set. I think one of the biggest issues is that because First Nations face health issues already to begin with, to have COVID hit our community would be more than devastating because we already have a high rate of health issues running rampant in our communities. So, we had to do our due diligence in terms of keeping our community members safe. So, that’s basically what we’ve been doing, is just doing the bare minimum in terms of getting business done on a daily basis but making sure that our elders and community members are safe.

Tracy: Right. And what about in terms of employment and in how businesses have been operating? How has that affected you?

Karen: Well, I think because it seems for a bit there, things have been at a standstill. Everything was shut down. Right now, we’re slowly, with the different phases opening up within the province of B.C., Coastal GasLink was still operating, but at a very slower pace. And they still had, I think, some of their camps going. And so now that we’re in phase three, we have, the camps are going. People are getting employed there. So, it’s a plus for us. If we didn’t have this LNG project our community, we’d have more people unemployed. So, I think everything is sort-of working out the way it should be and that the LNG project is helping with our economy right now and our employment rates within our community.

Tracy: Right. In terms of your role then as CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance, what have you seen in terms of the effect on the industry? It sounds like things are picking up slowly right now.

Karen: Yeah, it’s just, you know, keeping a watch on the different aspects of LNG around the world and how it’s like impacted almost every country, you know. Projects that are happening within Canada, I think that was the slow reopening. I think that is huge because there have been so many people that have lost their jobs or are underemployed. So, this project, the Coastal GasLink project, is, it’s a positive for our community and its members that are unemployed or facing unemployment.

Tracy: Karen, what is, for people who may not know, can you talk a bit about the role of the First Nations LNG Alliance?

Karen: I think one of the biggest factors, because I always allude to former premier, the late Jim Prentice, he wrote a book called Triple Crown. And that book really, sort-of informed myself about the history of resource development in Canada and how it relates to Indigenous People. I think that it was such a learning curve for people, you know, when we signed our agreement. A lot of people were not understanding what LNG was and how much safer it is than oil running through pipes to our communities and territories. So as the chief, I have a background in social work, and so I’ve had to really do a huge learning curve in terms of learning about resource development, learning about LNG. And so if I was unaware and uneducated about it, I thought it would be very useful for this organization to start educating our people in terms of what LNG is and how we, you know, being stewards of the land, we want to ensure that we are taking care and responsibility for the environment. But at the same time doing, extracting LNG responsibly and making sure that our environment is intact. And, you know, just ensuring that there is a balance on both ends. And so, that was, you know what they are doing, like talking about what goes on in the Northeast with the fracking and how that is done responsibly and safely, and the pipes going to the mid line territories and when it gets to the coast. And, you know, talking about the benefits that go along with that for the communities. Normally in the past, and this is where a lot of people were not aware that, you know, in the 1950s, they had put in an LNG line without our consultation. And so now both government and industry have no choice but to consult with Indigenous People. I think that’s the biggest piece that people are missing, is that no projects, major projects can go through our territories without our consent and consulting our nation. So that’s huge. And as we speak, we have the whole issue of the, Wet’suwet’en blockades that have been happening for the last two or three years in opposition to Coastal GasLink. And, you know, I think what’s been missing, the internal issues is that, you know, the people that are foreign and the people that are against the pipeline need to sit down and have a resolve on how this is going to impact our environment and our economy. So, I think the biggest piece of this is educating not only our people, but other First Nations, industry folk and even government as well.

Tracy: Right. So that becomes even more important, then, as we start to get into a time now where markets are reopening and economies are trying so hard to recover at this point. And as we start hearing more about economic recovery, that becomes so much more important is that, that need to work together. So where do we start with that?

Karen Well, in my view, I can sort-of speak for our community. You know, our community is not very large and we have a majority of the members that don’t live within the community. So, to get the demographics in terms of employable ages, what sorts of training are available? In the past, the province had provided training funds for this particular industry and there were two pipelines that came forward and they provided training dollars. And so, I think that sort-of helped our people in the different streams like camps and catering, security and clearing. So those were the three streams that we were able to train our members in. And for the most part, there’s opportunities all across the line, whether it be in the northeast or in central and northwest and I think the training aspect was important, and I’m not sure if there’s more room for more training because there are a lot more people who are unemployed now because of COVID. And I think that there’ll be more of a need for training for the people that want to find a job in the LNG or resource development industry. So, I think that’s one huge factor. And whether the provinces are able to continue to spend that money on employment and training initiatives to get the economy going again. I think the other two issues as well that have impacted natural resources within our region are mining. We had the Huckleberry mine shut down about a few years ago. And I don’t know if it’s going to come back up and running because of the copper prices. And then, the forest industry has been hit very — in a huge way. You know, the forest fires, the mountain pine beetle have impacted our forest. And so, it’s the biggest industry that we have right now is LNG. And I think even some of the naysayers, some of the protesters that have been involved are unemployed and finding they need to support their families. And so, I think that LNG couldn’t have come at a better time even though there was resistance. And I think it’s still a learning curve for people to realize that, you know, you’ve had LNG lines running through your territories for the last 50 years and we’ve had no major impact. So, I think it just remains to be seen that this is a really safe project. LNG is safe and it has a lot of benefits economically for all of our Indigenous communities. And, you know, the mainstream communities as well.

Tracy: In terms of economic recovery, then, how important is natural gas to the Indigenous communities in B.C.? Can you speak to that a little bit more?

Karen: Well, I think that for the most part in the urban setting, a lot of people that’s how they heat their homes. I think, not so much in rural and remote communities, but I think that in the urban settings, I think that’s, it’s still an educational piece to sort of inform people about how they heat their homes, what it means to the economy and how it impacts not only the Indigenous people on the line, but how it’s bringing in revenue for the whole province because it’s the government and industry and Indigenous people that are all the winners in these projects. And it also benefits mainstream society because there’s, you know, what we do know on the ground as Indigenous communities is that a lot of companies before would just be able to work on the line. And now there were stipulations put on by the company that in order to work on this line, you must partner with an Indigenous community. And that’s how the First Nations people have been able to get in on the line, create partnerships, joint ventures, so that everybody wins. And I think that’s a really key component that a lot of people are missing. And I can speak for our economic development arm for our nation. We have numerous joint venture partnerships. And it’s not only with LNG, it’s fractured off to forest — there’s forest opportunities and road building opportunities. So, what we’re venturing off to different sorts of all sorts of avenues. So, I think if we play our cards right, if we can really try to find ways and means to enhance our economy. And I think that’s really critical at this point, is we’ve got to be creative and innovative on how we move forward economically for our communities and for the province.

Tracy: In terms of creativity or moving ahead innovatively, what does that mean to you? What do you see?

Karen: Well, I can think about one opportunity that we have before us. Because cannabis is legalized and I look at the health issues of our community, our members, we are looking at the potential of opening up a storefront, doing a partnership with Indigenous Bloom for our community, which will employ people, it’ll bring in revenue. And, you know, during my term as chief, we developed four pillars within our community to offset the costs because normally Indigenous Service Canada gives us money based on the people living within the community. So, if we have poor housing, not a lot of people are going to live within a community, so that means we get less funds. So, we have needs in education and training if we really want our people to, if we want them to thrive and flourish, they must have education. That’s one of the ways that we will enhance our community members. The next is housing, which we have a housing shortage or we have lack of housing or poor housing. Then we’ll have revenue to build more homes or sustain the ones that we do have. The third piece is health and wellness. Because of the past issues like residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, we’re on a path of continuous healing. It’s lifelong to unravel all of the trauma that our people have gone through. And then the fourth one is language and culture. We have five fluent speakers within our community and they’re all Elders. So, once they pass, we need to be able to find a way to revitalize our language and culture. So those are the four pillars. And, you know, governance could be added on. But I think that those are sort of the key areas where our community really needs to enhance. And we need revenue to do that. And so, we need to find our own source revenue to sort-of build up and build the capacity within our community. So that’s sort-of our big picture plan that needs to be worked on by each of the councils that get into council every three years. But the steady pieces, our economic development arm, that is continuous, it’s sustained by its staff and a board, which I think is very positive. So that’s one of the projects that our community is working on. So we really have to, you know, look under every rock we can and find solutions to bring in revenue and create employment for our community members and, you know, in the region we’re living in, especially if it’s off of Highway 16 in the north. And, you know, some places have really good sites or good areas where they are geographically, where they’re able to sustain certain businesses. So up in the north, we really do have to be creative in terms of what kinds of businesses we can have and what will work within our region. So that’s one option that we have as communities.

Tracy: And so, a strong LNG industry and developing that industry, I guess, the ultimate goal then is, is to enable communities like yours to have, to be self-sustaining. Is it not? That’s where, that’s your ultimate goal in in the work that you’re doing through the First Nations LNG Alliance?

Karen: Yes, it is. And, you know, trying to sort-of pave the way for other nations to do the same because one issue that Indigenous communities face is the turnover in the councils. And it depends on, you know, the education level or training or experience that some of the leaders have. And some that may be more political minded or business minded. But I think when we sort-of tap into that business minded approach, that’s when we have win-wins all across the board. It’s just taking that critical piece and letting the business arm do what they need to do to create businesses and have them thrive without political involvement. I think that’s probably the biggest piece that most Indigenous communities need to tap into. And let the business arm do what they need to do for the community.

Tracy: OK. When you were speaking about the pillars that you have set up and talking about that, you kind-of led me to another topic that I wanted to just touch on with you, which is the topic of reconciliation with Indigenous people across Canada and the role that potentially the resource industry and oil and natural gas industry can play in helping to get us to that point.

Karen: Yes, I cannot agree more. We use that term. We’ve heard that term “economic reconciliation” and what does it mean? Where does it come from? I don’t, I guess after listening to all of these blockades that have happened in January, February and March and then COVID hit, and then all of a sudden, we had these issues with Black Lives Matters. Not a lot of people know about the history of Canada and what it’s done to Indigenous people. And I think that, that’s a critical piece for people to learn about that and really look at what the whole notion of why Indigenous people have been impacted. It was because of the land and resources. It was, the whole plan was to sort-of extinguish Indigenous people. But that hasn’t happened. And so, we’re still here. We, especially in B.C., we live on unceded territories. And so, they must work with us. We’re not going away. So just like, how our economic development arm is working, businesses must just partner, create joint venture partnerships with Indigenous communities that have their economic development arms up and ready and running, and start building those partnerships. And so that the communities win and the mainstream society wins. That’s the best way forward. I think that’s what I see and what I envision for our community and all the rest of the Indigenous communities is how do we create economic reconciliation? It’s a buzzword that we can talk about it, but how do we actually carry it out on the ground? And that’s the question that that each nation has to ask themselves. Some are not even there yet. Some are not ready. Some don’t have a capacity for it. And there are some that have been doing this for years. You see businesses within B.C. and across Canada that are Indigenous owned and that are thriving. Those are what you took in my mind, are what we see is the fruit of economic reconciliation. That our people are not, no longer living in poverty. And, you know, having to address all of the traumas that our generations of our families have experienced residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, children being taken away from their families, not knowing who they are, where they come from. So to me, that’s where, you know, when we talk about the four pillars in each of the communities, that’s how we achieve economic reconciliation, is that we promote the healing, we promote education, we promote proper living standards. And we know who we are and what our culture and language is. To me, that is true economic reconciliation and that our members are able to stand on their own two feet and to find a job and training. So that’s what I envision. And maybe other people have other ideas or definitions of what economic reconciliation means to them.

Tracy: How big a role, then, does the LNG industry have in that economic reconciliation piece and maybe I don’t know if you can speak in broader terms or maybe just to your own community?

Karen: Well, I think, you know, we’re one of the 20 that have signed a project agreement with Coastal GasLink. And in those agreements, we wanted to make sure that we’re getting compensated properly and efficiently for the right of ways that have been created. And so, once the pipe is in the ground, the communities will be receiving legacy payments for maybe up to 25 years, which I think is useful. Like I said, for our community, we will be using it within the four pillars. And then along with that, there was three streams of potential joint venture partnerships that each of the nations could have had. Clearing was one of them; camps and catering was a second; and security. Those were the three areas that our people were able to get jobs, but we had to get trained. So, whether it be for security or whether it was to be working in the camps and whether it was a part of the forestry aspect for clearing and all of that, that goes along with clearing the right of way. So, I think most of the people across the line, and it’s not just with our communities, we’ve been told that there will be more jobs than there are people. So, we wanted to make sure as Indigenous People that, well, first out the gate will be our people. They would be given first priority for the jobs, the training, and every opportunity across the line. And then everybody else in B.C. and Canada are able to work on this project. So, in my view, if we’re being hit economically in this country, then these projects will help us to sustain and, you know, help us with our economic recovery. Just hearing about the budget and how much of a deficit we’re in, all I can think of is that these projects, if we can get them to market and that money comes back to Canada, then we’re going to be hitting that deficit pretty darn hard. I’m not an economist, I just, you know, I think it’s common sense that these projects must go through. And, you know, Canada will win. Look, if everybody can be educated on these projects and what it means to our environment, what it means to our economy, where we can all be winners in all of this. That’s how I view it. And it’s, I guess, our job with the First Nations LNG Alliance to keep sending that message home, like, you know, how has this pandemic hit our economy and how can we re-build it? What is our part in all of this? So, I just believe that everybody plays a part in this and, you know, our economy can be boosted by these major projects.

Tracy: Canada can win. I think that’s an excellent thought for us to wrap up on today. Karen, is there anything else that you would like to add before we close off this podcast?

Karen: No, I don’t. I think that this whole discussion about economic recovery and economic reconciliation is very timely. I can’t say it and emphasize it more that we need to get these major projects out the gate, get it to market and having revenue come back into Canada to boost our economy. That’s my final say.

Tracy: All right. Karen Ogen-Toews, CEO of the First Nations LNG Alliance. Thank you so much for your time today. And thanks for being on the podcast.

Karen: Thank you, Tracy.

Tracy: And thank you to everyone listening for joining another edition of the Energy Examined podcast. Have a great day. And please tune in again soon.


In this article, Context speaks with:
  • Karen Ogen-Toews CEO, First Nations LNG Alliance