PODCAST: Why Indigenous support of natural resource development is stronger than you think

65% of Indigenous peoples support natural resource development: we chat with John Desjarlais and JP Gladu of the Indigenous Resource Network about what that means.

The Indigenous Resource Network (IRN) recently commissioned an Environics poll to assess cross-Canada Indigenous support for natural resource development. What they found defies the common perception in the media: 65% supported development vs only 23% opposed.

Energy Examined chats with John Desjarlais and JP Gladu of the IRN about the findings and how sustainable natural resource development is seen as a key source of jobs, business opportunities and self determination among many Indigenous communities.

The Indigenous Resource Network is an Indigenous-run organization providing a platform for Indigenous workers, business owners and leaders who support Indigenous engagement in the resource sector. 

Transcript of Podcast

Leighton: Hello and welcome to another edition of the Energy Examined podcast. The podcast that discusses the issues facing Canada’s oil natural gas sector with the insiders in the know. I’m Leighton Klassen. Today, I’m joined by John Desjarlais with Great Plains Contracting and a director with the Indigenous Resource Network, also known as IRN, and JP Gladu, acting executive director with the IRN. Now, it recently commissioned a poll on Indigenous support for natural resource development. And that’s what we’re going to discuss today with John and JP. Welcome to the show, both of you.

JP: Great to be here. Thanks for having us.

John: Yeah, thanks Leighton.

Leighton: No problem. So first, tell me a little bit about the Indigenous Resource Network and what the organization does. JP, I’ll go to you for that, to start.

JP: Well, that’s great. Thanks, really. We really do appreciate the opportunity. Well, we’ve been around for just over a year and formerly a group of advisory committee members that came together with the support of Canada Action and the support of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and Our Friends was a big contributor at the very front end. Cenovus helped support us to get off the ground. We’re a group of Indigenous people largely based in Western Canada at this point. But we’re starting to make significant headway into the mindset of Canadians. And really, our mandate is about changing the narrative in Canada with regards to the Indigenous perspectives on our relationship with the natural resource sectors. And we do that and we’ll get into some conversations around some of the polling we’ve done, a lot of social media. We represent Indigenous businesses as well as Indigenous workers working in the oil, gas, mining and forestry sectors. And it’s a great group. Now, we’re at a point where we’re starting to see some really great success and now, we’re starting to formalize ourselves. I was originally a volunteer director in my previous role as the CEO and president of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business. And it led me into a really great space here where I’ve kind-of stepped into an acting executive director role in the frontend until we get to a place where we can actually hire a full-time ED. John has been a really important part of this collaborative group and maybe I’ll just — any reflections from John would be great.

John: Absolutely. Thank you, JP. Yeah. And so similarly, I was tapped on the shoulder last spring to help get involved. And the way it was pitched to me was — and I knew there was — certainly a space here was needed. We see a lot of polarization in regard to resource development, very pro, very against. And there wasn’t enough dialogue and there wasn’t really a platform, especially for Indigenous people to kind-of speak to the middle. What does good development look like? What does sustainable development look like? What does best practice look like? And so, it’s certainly created a vacuum in the space to create something like that. And yeah, incredibly excited to participate, having someone whose work is professional and in the mining industry for 16, 17 years now in construction, serving the resource development industry, mining and energy, you know, excited to participate as an Indigenous professional, offer my perspective and then to help kind-of continue to build that voice to serve the workers and businesses and an advocate for best practice through the Indigenous Resource Network.

Leighton: OK, great. Well, and this kind-of leads us to one of your most recent significant projects. The IRN recently issued a poll to gauge the support Indigenous people had on resource development. So first, John, why did your organization commission this poll?

John: Well, absolutely. I think the organization felt anecdotally there was certainly great support, but that was the challenge, right? It was anecdotal. There wasn’t anything we can point to — structured or researched or anything — that would say what do Indigenous people say? What are people who live near resource development projects say? What do they think about that? And again, a lot of us come from a lot of places, community. We had certainly perspectives that there was a lot of support with caveats and whatnot. But we knew we needed to put kind-of an organized effort behind this, pull this information together objectively and be able to present that, right. Because that’s what people listen to. And that was certainly going to move the needle and create, I think, more meaningful discussion on Indigenous people and resource development.

JP: Yeah, John’s absolutely right. Getting back to his earlier point around polarization. Anecdotally, and it’s kind of sad that a lot of Canadians portray us as people who are opposed to resource development and the challenge around that is, this is simply not true. Yes, of course, we do have spectrum, but the poll that we’ve done with Environics, I’ve worked with them in the past at the CCAB, did an incredible job of representing the Indigenous voice from across the country on our reflections with regards to resource development. Now to John’s point, we’ve got numbers to tell the narrative. This is no more, no longer anecdotal. This is, these are the facts. And we’re here to share those facts with Canadians.

Leighton: That sounds great, yeah, we’re going to get into that right away here, but first, I want to know a little bit of who did you poll and how did you poll them?

JP: Well, Environics and we had some great resources to hire Environics to do the polling. And we went across Canada, across a majority of like, a good representation of First Nations across the country in a lot of rural areas as well to ascertain this data. John, I don’t quite recall the number of communities that we reached out to off the top of my head, but it was a great end value as far as us having great representation.

John: Yeah, absolutely. So, yeah, there was a considerable number of communities hit. I think there was a total of about 600 self-identified Indigenous people living in rural areas. And so, the poll came together much that I think the best practice way where our fees were decided, scope of work, it was presented. We got proposals coming back with methodologies, what not. We went through that whole process, selected Environics based on their background and experience, and then, of course, the polling in itself. Right. And so, we wanted to hear from the rural communities who didn’t necessarily have, I guess, the voice that the urban population might have, but also recognizing that it’s often the rural communities that are most impacted by these decisions being near or adjacent to resource development. So, that was a lot of the methodology that went behind it. So, that was the people we polled, as well as the ‘how’ behind it.

JP: And I just, the only other little thing to add to that, we did poll Métis and Inuit people as well. So, it’s important to recognize that we’re diverse.

Leighton: OK, great. So, let’s get into the findings. What were some of the key findings and how supportive is the Indigenous population you polled, of resource development? John, I’m going to start with you.

John: Absolutely, like it was nice, like I said, as I open it up. A lot of us were I think, a little hesitant. What do people say? But that was it. Through integrity, we wanted to engage in this process. We wanted to find out and then deal with that honesty. If people weren’t supportive, then what does that look like? And how do either you develop the support or how do you deal with that lack of support? But some of the bigger numbers are three quarters of rural residents support resource development in general. And so, 75 per cent of those. And that was incredible. We found that, like I said, three out of four support resource development, which was one of the biggest findings that we found. And then some of the findings that came through that is around what? Certainly, some themes mattered in terms of what was the basis for that support and then a lot of that stemmed back to economic opportunities and environmental protection.

JP: Yeah, you know, why this is so important and as well it’s personal. I mean, I think you’re picking up on it, Leighton, from John and myself, as Indigenous people who have relied on the resource sector for well, for jobs and economic activity. Both my grandparents had jobs when we worked in the forest sector. I’m a forester by training and the other one helped to build the TransCanada pipelines in northern Ontario, the gas lines and the modeling for our people to see our parents with jobs is really incredible. And it can be seen as well when you start to look and we broke down some of the questionnaires, just one here as an example, “Indigenous people see resource development, that those jobs are incredibly important to our communities,” if I kind of run through this. So, 56 per cent rated healthcare as the most important issue. And that would make a lot of sense, especially considering we’re in a global pandemic. But the second on the list was 55 per cent saw resource development jobs as a second top urgent priority. And then it went to education and training at 53 [per cent], traditional activities at 39 [per cent], governance at 36 [per cent] and federal transfers at 32 [per cent]. And that ’32’ number is really important to focus on as well, because what that tells us is our people are tired. We don’t want to rely on transfer payments. I mean that’s important for our Indigenous governments to have those to support our communities. But we also need to build economic engines within our communities to support ourselves. We’re tired of just existing. We need to thrive and in communities that are in and have healthy business activities within partnerships in all the resource sectors have very healthy economies. And that can be seen, a lot of positive attributes as a result of that.

Leighton: Yes, sounds like those are excellent statistics. I’m interested to know if and I know, John, you alluded to this a little bit. I think you were confident that you’d see the results that you saw. But at the same time a little nervous because you don’t know until you actually get a poll and you get the numbers. But what was both of your reactions when the results came in?

John: I was pleased, like it affirmed what I felt and what I believed right? And as JP mentioned, you know, I’m certainly not first generation in terms of careers and jobs within the resource industry. It was very impactful in the capacity it developed because as Indigenous people — and then JP was right, we want to self-determine. We want to carve our own path. And then through that, economic development is one of the bigger drivers of that. I think there was some hesitancy certain because we’ve become a little jaded with media. And so, media is about media. It’s about pushing information and about ratings and audienceship. And so, you know, we’ve seen the polarization. We live that polarization and it sometimes informs and jades our perspective. And so, this was nice to kind of recalibrate and settle what real feelings are in regard to resource development. And so, you know, like I said, it was a little bit of a sigh of relief. We did believe it, but it’s nice to see it.

JP: Absolutely. And to see it actually in our communities, which John and I are talking about, and seeing the pride in our people’s faces coming home after a hard day’s work. And they’re driving their truck and they’re feeding their families and they’re participating in sports because they’ve got resources to do so. You don’t realize like tens of thousands of our people rely on the resource sector for their income. And then there are thousands of Indigenous businesses like John’s that are successfully employing more of our own people that are associated with the resource sectors and jobs in the mining sector, as mentioned. So, I wasn’t overly surprised to see that type of support, largely because when you see success in the community that creates, those are the beacons in our community of people that are successful and contributing positively to our communities. And those people rub off on other people. And so, when our people see each other working like that and they associate that the resource sector, there’s much more appreciation and support. And so, I wasn’t overly surprised being involved like John for a couple of generations now relying on the resource sector for our opportunities.

Leighton: Yeah. And one of the, you kind-of alluded to this in terms of influencing others, which I find interesting, which was a stat I wanted to talk to you about and it said that support was higher for the working ages 35 to 54 at 70 per cent, but lower for the 18- to 34-year-olds. I’m interested to know what your thoughts are on why that is and if it’s concerning and how to change that?

JP: I’ll jump in really quickly because that figure actually doesn’t surprise me a ton. And I think you can see that against, in probably non-Indigenous people as young people, they see the Googles of the world. They see all these technology jobs and they’re fantastic for sure. That’s exciting. Those are exciting careers, too. And nothing holding against them to go after those careers. I think, I’m not, again, overly surprised because that cohort of 35 to 54 years are, when we think about the education numbers and we align those to those age brackets, our older population isn’t as educated and so, but they go back and they get the training to be able to participate in the resource sectors. You’ve become, I mean, I’m almost 50 and I’ve become a little bit less malleable. And so, education’s a little tougher on us folks that are a little bit older. But these young Indigenous people, I mean, they’re young, they’re vibrant. They’re being educated. Their world is a lot more open probably than the cohort in my and John’s age, not to say that John’s old, but what are your thoughts, John?

John: No, absolutely. Yeah. So, I’m cut on the lower end of that spectrum there being 40 years old. But absolutely, like reaffirming what JP said, that this is certainly not unique to Indigenous people. I think this is generally across all demographics in terms of resource development, sustainability, the environment and that relationship. So, I don’t know if it’s alarming from an Indigenous perspective, but it’s certainly a trend. JP mentioned there’s a technology boom and how people are connected and whatnot. And I think occupations within resource development are looked at a little more traditionally, right? And so, a little more, I guess, you know, wrench-turning and a little dirtier and things like that. And, you know, it’s cyclical. I think there’ll be a great demand here in the resource development sector, as there already is. And I think it’ll start to draw that age group back in as wages increase, as outreach increases, as educational and career opportunities increase.

JP: Absolutely, you know, it’s interesting the stat, the results, the one that really did surprise me, though, were that Indigenous men were more likely to oppose resource development than Indigenous women. I thought that interesting. We’ve got a couple of powerhouses in our cohort of directors with the IRN. And they’re amazing women who are doing extraordinary things. And I don’t know, I’m just kind of describing the water that maybe, that we might be trotting here and trying to figure out why this data is the way it is. But I was very surprised by that one.

Leighton: Yeah, that is interesting. Yeah, and one other one that I found interesting was one of the questions asked was, “what support would you have if a project was proposed in your community?” And the result was two to one in support, which is really good. What does this tell you about the optimism of future resource development in Indigenous communities? Maybe we’ll start with JP.

JP: OK, you know, it’s, we did a lot of work at a national level and in Indigenous business, and I work with a lot of corporations and boards and starting John and I are seeing these trends now where we’re becoming active participants in all levels of resource development, from the front line jobs to the businesses to joint ventures with our economic development corporations and now actually equitable owners in projects like an example, the Mikisew and the Fort McKay First Nations in the Suncor East Tank project, owning 49 per cent of a billion-dollar project. So, there’s a lot more optimism, I would think, in supporting resource projects, because you can see the wealth that generates from a community that is near a mining source because of the direct benefits to the community and as well as the ability for communities to help direct the way that projects get developed in a way that reclaim land. Those are all massive opportunities for jobs. And so, you don’t get this NIMBYism. And if you do, a lot, ‘we don’t want development in our backyard,’ well, communities and many of them are looking for those activities because in many of our northern communities, there isn’t anything else, although the pandemic has taught us that we can work from anywhere. But you’ve got to have the base to attract your population back to your community, which is one of the opportunities and challenges as well. But I’d really be curious to hear John’s perspective on this.

John: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more with the, I guess, that value chain or the depth of opportunities that Indigenous people have with the resource development right from entry-level all the way now to equity owners and communities see that and communities recognize as Indigenous resource networks and organizations and companies do that good work and profile the people that are meaningfully participating in a lot of these different levels. You know, the community see that, the grassroots see that. And it’s incredibly impactful. And that’s a big part of where that support comes from. And that’s, our end is about creating a platform for showcasing that right, and then celebrating that and then sharing that across the industry.

Leighton: OK, great. Well, it sounds like the results from this poll were very, very positive and that there’s a lot of support among many Indigenous communities. My last question is, how do we build on this from industry to the general public to community leaders? How do we build on the support that this poll indicates? Maybe I’ll start with you, John.

John: Absolutely. And so, you know, I think this poll certainly should inform a new narrative, right, in terms of Indigenous participation and support of resource development. And it should inform, I think, consultation and engagement strategies. You know, if we are to shape policy in terms of what is in the interest of Indigenous people, we should reach the people most impacted by those resource development decisions. You know, far too often policies are shaped by larger urban centers and things like that. But we should really engage with those groups whose rights we’re impacting, whose rights resource development are impacting and then, you know, develop. I think those plans, risk mitigation plans to, I think, fully realize the value of those development projects.

JP: Eloquently, said, my friend, I want to pick up on the one part you talk about, John, the urban centers and I live in northern Ontario, my First Nations is in northern Ontario, and quite frankly, it’s the votes in the south that dictate a lot of the work that gets done in the north. And again, this is an opportunity for us to tell our narrative. And I hope that the people in Quebec and southern Ontario listen to these types of stats and start to recognize that we want responsible development in our communities. We want to say we need the benefits and we have a tie. Canada is a, we’ve been blessed with a natural resource sector that is world-class. Having Indigenous people lead that development, being put through our lenses is only going to strengthen our country. And having these stats to be able to educate other Canadians about the real story of us is incredibly important so that they can stop misrepresenting us at the political tables because they’re not doing a service when they do so. This is a really important organization. I think we’re well placed at the right time in history, given everything that’s going on in the world.

Leighton: OK, well, that sounds great. Thank you both very much, very interesting poll. We’ll have it on our website along with this podcast. Thanks very much for providing this insight. Oh sorry — did you want to say something?

JP: Yeah. Just one more quick thing for your listeners that are coming in, for sure. Check us out at indigenousresourcenetwork.ca. And please follow us. We’re on Twitter. We’re on Facebook. We’re on Instagram. We want you to listen in and we want you to see what we’re saying and agree, disagree, but get engaged. That’s really the important part of this whole organization, is to engage Canadians from an Indigenous perspective and to help educate.

Leighton: Well said. Well, thanks again both John and JP for being on the show.

John: My pleasure. Thank you.

JP: Great pleasure.

Leighton: Well, that was our conversation with John Desjarlais and JP Gladu with the Indigenous Resource Network. Stay tuned for our next Energy Examined podcast. And if you like this one, please share it with a friend and make sure you subscribe on whatever podcast you have. For more stories and interviews on Canada’s energy industry, check out our website, context.capp.ca.