Podcast: Why ownership changes everything: Indigenous communities take the lead in resource development

Bob Merasty, executive director for the Indigenous Resource Network, discusses the growing confidence and desire of Indigenous communities in Canada to create sustainable futures for themselves by becoming equal partners in oil and natural gas development.

Bob Merasty is the executive director of the Indigenous Resource Network, an organization looking to build a sustainable future for Indigenous communities across Canada through responsible development of natural resources. “We’re no longer passengers,” says Merasty, highlighting the growing confidence of Indigenous groups to become owners and equal partners through equity deals on pipelines, Indigenous-led LNG projects, entrepreurial supply-chain businesses and more.

Merasty discusses with Energy Examined the impetus behind this trend, including benefits like jobs, economic growth and poverty reduction, steps needed to take things further, such as improved access to capital, and the vital role Indigenous businesses can play as land and natural resource stewards.  

Podcast transcript

Leighton: Hello and welcome to another edition of the Energy Examined podcast, the podcast that discusses the issues facing Canada’s oil and natural gas sector with the insiders in the know. I’m Leighton Klassen. Today, I’m joined by Robert Merasty. He’s the executive director of the Indigenous Resource Network, also known as the IRN. He’s going to talk to us about his new role as executive director and some of the IRN’s initiatives. Bob, welcome to the show.

Bob: Well, good afternoon, my friend.

Leighton: Do you mind if I call you Bob or Robert?

Bob: Bob’s perfect.

Leighton: Let’s start with the Indigenous Resource Network. What is the IRN and what is its purpose?

Bob: The Indigenous Resource Network is the voice of our Indigenous Peoples, our workers, entrepreneurs, our leaders with respect to economic and resource development. And the purpose of the Indigenous Resource Network, the IRN, is really to change the narrative, the myths, and the information, as it were, that Indigenous communities don’t want resource development. Nothing could be further from the truth. The IRN’s role is to change the narrative and to really address our economic circumstances in our communities, to make a difference and to address the poverty that’s rampant in our communities.

Leighton Earlier this year, you were promoted as the IRN’s executive director. Congratulations.

Bob Thank you.

Leighton: What brought you on to the IRN and why is it important that you’re part of this?

Bob: My background has always been, you know, as a kid growing up, my grandmother raised me in my traditional values, and she always brought me to always care about others and to make a difference. So the IRN fit in because after my political life, I was the chief, I was a regional chief. And I had some law school — I was in law school, all those things. I worked in the corporate sector. I worked at all levels of government. And I believe that when I saw the position at IRN being posted, my wife said, “This has your name written all over it. This is what you are about.”

I absolutely, totally agreed with my wife that this is, the executive director position of the IRN is just absolutely what I’m about. I’m enjoying my job because it’s what I believe in. And that’s important. It’s important that you absolutely believe. Like being a salesman, you believe in your product. And so, I absolutely embrace the role that I have with the Indigenous Resource Network. And certainly, since its inception in 2020, I started in February 2022, we are really just starting to ramp up and people are watching us. We received the Forestry Award, National Forestry Award last week. We’ve got some really good relationships in all sectors of industry.

Leighton: We’ll talk a little bit more about some of those initiatives, some of those accomplishments, the forestry one you just mentioned as well. But I first want to talk about a campaign called Ownership Changes Everything. Can you tell us about what this campaign is?

Bob: Ownership Changes Everything was really about our Indigenous communities. We’ve evolved to the point where we’re no longer, in the words of a couple of the communities that signed on with Coastal GasLink in particular, they said that we’re no longer passengers on this road to being involved in mainstream industry. We are drivers.

We are drivers, meaning that we now are in a position where we bring the land’s resources, our lands, our resources to the table. We have access to capital, and we are now drivers in major resource development projects. And so, ownership changes everything because ownership of these projects means that we get a larger return on our revenue. We have a say in the jobs and training and how our lands are being used in terms of resource development. So, ownership means having a real stake, a real seat at the table.

Leighton: Tell me a little bit about how you’re moving towards achieving these goals and some of the successes that you have in terms of greater Indigenous ownership.

Bob: Absolutely. How we are achieving those goals is where we have educated young leaders who understand business, who embrace business. So, that’s a part of it. We become business savvy, as it were. So, we’re no longer in any unfair or compromising negotiating position. In terms of even sharing success stories, how do we achieve agreements that work in our benefit, right. So, negotiating aggressively.

But also, I think, having industry recognize that we will no longer be content with the crumbs on the cake. We want our cake just as much as anybody else. And so, what we showcase is some of those successes like the Coastal GasLink or the Fort McKay First Nation or, just recently Hydro One and then, of course, Enbridge’s announcement this morning with the Athabasca communities. Those are success stories. So, we showcase to our Indigenous communities that we have them believing that anything’s possible in business. We’re no longer in a compromising position.

Leighton: To build on that, as IRN executive director, you said your goal is to benefit Indigenous people at the grassroots level. Can you talk a little bit more about that? And again, I know you touched on this, what some of the benefits are that you would like to look like for communities.

Bob: Absolutely. You know, I grew up in poverty. I’ve lived poverty. I see it fairly rampant still in our communities. And so, our socioeconomic status in our communities is very poor. And so, we need to address those conditions on our own. Nobody is going to do that for us. As communities, we need to stand up and put in motion a strategy where we address the poverty in our communities and each community must undertake this on their own and/or work with other communities to address their poverty.

When we say that the work that we do with IRN is to address the grassroots, that means we want to address the poverty in our communities. That means by engaging in partnerships, promoting partnerships between industry and our Indigenous communities, resource development projects will emanate from those partnerships and direct benefit is to our communities in terms of revenue generation, the jobs, the training, improving the lifestyles of our people, enhancing the lifestyles of our people. And so, the benefits would be the revenue generation, the jobs, putting food on the table, paying the bills. Those are the benefits.

Leighton: You’ve also said you’d like to see each band sit together and talk about their future and how they see economic and resource development. That could be a challenge, given that not all Indigenous communities are aligned on resource development or their view of the future. Can you tell me about that process and how you would find common ground amongst the various participants?

Bob: You have to respect the autonomy of each nation to make its own, to recognize its own economic self-determination. And when those nations make that recognition and that commitment to achieving that economic self-determination, then you can show them the road to achieving that. And so, they can do that independently as a nation by forming their own corporate entity and getting involved in immediate low-hanging fruit like business ventures, but also resource development projects for the long term.

But they can also do that with other bands. The cliche is ‘dance with those that want to dance.’ It’s the prerogative or the autonomy of each nation to make that determination for itself. But you see so many exciting projects happening. Like I said earlier, like Hydro One in northern Ontario or the Coastal GasLink, all these projects that are, you know, many first nations, 16 First Nations or 26 First Nations together. There’s strength in that. In our language we teach to win, which means helping each other. And so, that’s one of our teachings as First Nations people.

Leighton: Earlier you spoke about the perception that Indigenous Peoples are universally against resource development, and it’s further from the truth. I’m wondering, are you finding there is a better understanding among Canadians that it’s not about stopping development, but finding ways to create partnerships that benefit Indigenous communities?

Bob: Absolutely. We give accolades to those that do the work to protect our Mother Earth, those environmental people that say the Mother Earth and our stewardship is paramount. We agree with that. But what we’re saying is that resource development is so important because we have to have, as I said earlier, each community has to strive to have an economic self-determination vision for itself. And so, that free, prior and informed consent that I talk about is each community sitting with industry and talking about a plan.

The best project — resource development project — to industry people has to say that they’re working with a community that has already had that consent and that approval from its people to move forward with the resource development. And so, that’s what we would share. I think too that the IRN has done some of the work in terms of changing that narrative about resource development. We did an Environics poll with FPAC [Forest Products Association of Canada]. We did a poll on resource development that said that probably 67 to 68 per cent of people in their Indigenous communities want resource development because they see it as a way out. They see it as a way to make a difference and change our economic circumstances in our community.

Leighton: Let’s take a look at some of the economic tools you want to develop: capital investment, indigenous finance institutions. The IRN campaign calls for the implementation of an Indigenous Infrastructure Bank to help kickstart capital. What’s the status of that idea?

Bob: That campaign was largely successful because our reach in terms of the analytics and our reach that are coming back from our various campaigns, this Ownership Changes Everything campaign being one of them, it’s having its effect. People are recognizing that we have to address the barriers to resource development projects with the interest in the parties that need to be involved or interested. And so, a lot of the organizations that need to be at the table are at the table. Our National Aboriginal Capital Corporation, our Indigenous finance institutions, even international offshore money is now at the table. So, this whole campaign — and I believe the federal government is talking about a growth fund for Indigenous capital. So, it’s moving, it’s not in place yet, but we see this as being an exciting initiative to kickstart a lot of projects. And so, I think it’s well on its way.

Leighton: To achieve these goals of self-determination and participation in resource development, where do you see the provincial federal governments and what role should they have?

Bob: So, it’s exciting times. As I said, we’ve really started to build partnerships and relationships with different sectors of industry. In western Canada, we get it because we see oil and gas, energy, mining, forestry, fishing, agriculture. It’s exciting because people are saying, “Let’s sit and talk. Let’s explore.” In the words of Chief Dan George, we have an obligation to explore what is beneficial for all of us. Very powerful. That’s what’s happening. We’re exploring.

And so, those are coming together. Industry and our Indigenous communities are coming together. And what we’re saying to government, that’s where provincial governments that are recognizing the investment capital portion, they’re recognizing that we need to have business infrastructure. They’re recognizing that we need to look at the policy and regulations regime to make these projects happen, making them less stringent and not so onerous. How does the government play a role? Well, those are key things. And promoting forums for industry and our Indigenous communities to come together and explore partnerships. That’s how they can play a role.

Leighton: Talking about a lot of hot button issues in the industry, one of the many issues in the sector and many other stakeholders, they’re talking about the federal government’s proposed emissions cap. I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about it. You talked about it. As you know, there are a variety concerns, from it being unrealistic to driving away investment. I’m curious to know, what’s the IRN’s stance on the emissions cap?

Bob: We have just released [September 21st] our new media campaign, the Indigenous Resource Network released our media campaign on the federal government’s oil emissions cap and our Indigenous response, Indigenous voice to that. And we said, don’t cap the economic future of our Indigenous Peoples. That’s the very biggest statement we can say, because what have is tens of billions of dollars at stake here in oil and gas and LNG projects that are currently underway or are about to be underway. And so, don’t put a cap on that. We’re trying to address our economic future for our communities. That’s one position. We’ve also said, how can the government — this process of consultation, consultation is not resolved by simply having webinars.

And, you know, they have a September 30th deadline, which I’m hearing might be extended, but it’s simply: we must have meaningful talk, talk that really makes sense, that says, “What is digestible?” They’re talking 42 per cent reduction, but in eight years. How can we achieve those realistically, right? So, sitting and talking with communities, that’s part of it. But also, how can the federal government take our decision? We have said our Indigenous communities reserve the right to make a decision on what is ethically, environmentally and economically responsible for our lands, on our lands or resources. Federal government cannot take that away.

The other response is, we are in an energy crisis. Canada’s in an energy crisis. It does not make sense that you would shut down oil and gas production in a way where you force yourself to buy energy from other countries. It’s not a good economic model. It doesn’t make economic sense. We are purchasing energy from other countries at a huge rate when you have energy production now.

The last point I make, is this whole oil and gas emissions cap plan, the federal government can’t do it on their own. They need industry to be sitting at the table. The entire Indigenous community should be sitting at the table. So, we need to talk. Let’s talk. And what is digestible, what is realistic? I see Canada taking the lead role internationally on this. We all believe, we all recognize we need to be responsible for what’s happening with our Mother Earth and climate change. Yeah, all of us take that on our shoulders, but let’s sit down and talk about what is realistic, what is digestible.

Leighton: We’ve spoken about a lot of initiatives. You’re very busy in your role and with the entire organization at the IRN. Is there anything else you want to you want to mention as far as initiatives that you’re doing that we can expect in the upcoming year?

Bob: Yeah, absolutely. We’re just ramping up. We have an amazing communications team because that’s what we are largely: the Indigenous voice that’s non-partisan, it’s independent. We maintain that voice, our Indigenous Peoples, but we do that through communications advocacy and that’s largely what we are.We’re doing opinion editorials. We’re doing video with success stories; we’re doing media campaigns. We’re on every form of social media, we’re doing postings, and our analytics that are coming back are through the roof. We’re doing political lobbying. We’re able to reach those that are in power to address those barriers. So, we’re just ramping up. We’re building capacity, too. We’re just ramping up our communications advocacy. We’re doing a lot more media campaigns. We’re doing a lot more advocacy. Stay tuned.

Leighton: Clearly the voice is getting louder. So, thank you very much, Robert, for being on the show. It was a pleasure to have you.

Bob: I absolutely enjoyed meeting you and thank you for these really good questions. Thank you.

Leighton: Bob Merasty is the executive director for the IRN. 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. See you next time.