One First Nation’s endorsement of Energy East highlights issues with pipeline consultation

Image: a large silvery pipeline curves off into the distance under a blue sky. (Image credit: TransCanada/I don't have any right to use this but whatevs)

Image: a large silvery pipeline extends off into the distance under a blue sky. (Image credit: TransCanada/I don’t have any right to use this but whatevs)

“First Nations and Métis partnership is at the very heart of the Northern Gateway Project,” claims energy giant Enbridge on their website promoting the pipeline project.

In extolling the benefits of the Energy East pipeline, TransCanada boasts that “Fostering strong, long-term relationships with Aboriginal communities is, and will continue to be, an integral part of everything we do here at TransCanada…In fact, many Chiefs have already expressed their appreciation for our engagement process.”

Kinder Morgan, touting the 22 “long-term mutual support and benefit agreements” they’ve signed with First Nations along the route of Trans Mountain, promises to “continue to work with Aboriginal communities along the pipeline to build mutual benefit agreements with all communities along the proposed pipeline corridor.”

These proclamations of mutually beneficial relations with First Nations and of the support of Aboriginal communities for the pipeline process are in many ways fantasies. Each of these projects faces widespread opposition from Indigenous peoples, both at the grassroots level and among many provincial and national leaders. This opposition has in many cases escalated to the extent of constructing blockades and protest camps to prevent pipeline construction. The consultation process of which these titans of industry are so proud has been widely condemned by First Nations across the country, with Aboriginal elders in Manitoba refusing to participate in NEB consultations over Enbridge’s Line 3 due to the absurd restrictions imposed on the process.

To claim that the support of First Nations is “integral” to these companies’ success is therefore somewhat ridiculous on its face, as evidence of this support is in short supply. And yet, in another sense, these claims are absolutely true. These pipeline companies know that without at least the appearance of First Nations support, their chances of ever constructing these behemoth tar-sands tubes are slim. And so they quite reasonably do everything they can to play up the support they have received from some First Nations communities.

But even that support isn’t as simple as it may seem at first glance. In at least some cases, it may not be based on a relationship of mutual trust and a firm conviction in the fundamental rightness and safety of the project in question, but instead on an urgent need for funds.

This past week, APTN drew attention to the controversy surrounding Saskatchewan First Nation Carry the Kettle’s preliminary approval of a TransCanada proposal endorsing Energy East, which crosses their territory. With elections for band council slated for the end of the month, Chief Barry Kennedy is accusing TransCanada of using “sneaky and conniving business practices” to persuade a majority of councillors to approve the $18-million agreement.

In Kennedy’s telling of the story, TransCanada is behaving inappropriately by pressuring councillors to approve the deal so close to an election. The deal does still needs final approval from both the council and the Department of Indigenous Affairs, and the councillors have promised public consultation before passing a post-election final resolution. The fact that the TransCanada’s former liaison with the community, Elsie Jack, is running against him for the position of Chief is doubtless a factor in Kennedy’s position, and in all fairness, the councillors who approved the deal have vigorously defended themselves, stressing the tangible benefits it will provide to the First Nation:

“Our community members want jobs, our unemployment rate is high, if you are suggesting we wait for infrastructure and employment, I don’t think so,” said Coun. Victor Prettyshield. “(TransCanada) is making an unprecedented deal and if you are saying, ‘Is it a good deal? I am insulted by the question.” […]

The money is needed for a new firetruck, a new administration building, a senior’s home, an expansion of the store and the construction of a community centre with an ice rink, he said.

What we’re talking about here are extremely basic amenities that the community likely would not be able to afford without an infusion of cash from TransCanada. Band councillors are essentially being asked to choose between high unemployment and inadequate infrastructure on the one hand and a multi-million dollar deal on the other.

In recent weeks, Canadians have seen still more of the tragic headlines about conditions on First Nations reserves to which we’ve sadly become accustomed. The chief of Pimicikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba declared a state of emergency over an epidemic of youth suicides, saying that support services in the community were stretched beyond the breaking point. An Indigenous man marched 550 kilometres to his home in Webequie in northern Ontario carrying a full oxygen tank to draw attention to the appalling state of health care in his community, where his wife recently died due to a lack of oxygen, a basic medial supply.

The infrastructural issues on reserves are notorious. An internal government report showed that it would cost Manitoba over $2 billion to deal with just the most urgent repairs to dilapidated housing on First Nations reserves. 93% of reserves in Saskatchewan report at least one boil water advisory in the past decade, and in some communities across Canada such advisories have persisted for a decade or more, or are ineffective in the face of toxins like mercury.

In such circumstances, it’s easy to see how Carry the Kettle councillors like Prettyshield are able to rationalize agreeing to a deal which will bring substantial benefits to their community. Prettyshield waves away concerns about climate change, arguing that regardless of Carry the Kettle’s final decision, oil isn’t going anywhere “in the next 20 years”, and that the community would be foolish not to take advantage of what he describes as an excellent deal: ‘“It is exclusive and it was recommended to us by our negotiators,” said Prettyshield. “This is as good as the ones in Fort McMurray, Alta.”’ And as for worries about oil spills, the councillors had nothing to say to the media; perhaps they’ve calculated that, for them at least, the benefits of the deal outweigh the potential risks.

Carry the Kettle is in a bit of a unique position. According to APTN, they’re a chokepoint for the already-existing portion of Energy East; going around them would doubtless be incredible expensive and logistically nightmarish for TransCanada. The company is therefore likely to be as generous as necessary. In such a situation, there really is not much to be gained by refusing an agreement, especially since the community is entitled to $7 million within weeks of signing the deal, regardless of whether or not Energy East ever receives federal approval or gets completed, and will receive millions of dollars over the next two decades to compensate for unnegotiated past use of their land by TransCanada.

Even Chief Kennedy opposes the deal largely on the grounds that the First Nation ought to hold out for a much better one, including far greater compensation for historical trespass and the right to impose a tariff on the products passing through the line. Not having followed the negotiations closely, it’s difficult for me to assess whether the deal is as good as its proponents claim, but my hunch is that when one of your main advisors is paid by the company you’re negotiating with, you’re probably not going to get the best deal possible:

The Carry the Kettle side was helped by a consultant Jack Tanner—whose salary was paid by TransCanada.

Tanner sent the councillors a media statement to bolster their position.

“This agreement is unprecedented and to my knowledge is the first of its kind in the province of Saskatchewan and is exceptional for (TransCanada) to have agreed to such an agreement,” said Tanner, in the statement. “The (Carry the Kettle) council participated in the intense negotiations in a professional and united way. In my opinion they all behaved in a manner protecting the interests and obtaining the best deal possible for their First Nation.”

Well but of course he’d say that, now wouldn’t he?

What is evident from this example is that the support of a First Nation’s band council for a particular pipeline project can’t be viewed in isolation. The critical context here is hundreds of years of genocide, enclosure, and wilful and deliberate deprivation on the part of the federal government, which has culminated in a state of affairs where many reserves are subsisting with a standard of living which would shock most settlers. This state of deprivation looks to continue unaltered in spite of lofty rhetoric and empty promises from the not-so-new-anymore Trudeau government.

Facing twin crises of grossly inadequate infrastructure/services and unconscionably high youth unemployment/depression/substance abuse/suicide, First Nations across the country which are lucky enough to be situated over valuable resources or along the path of proposed pipelines find themselves being wooed by deep-pocketed companies offering them money they desperately need. In many cases, as with Carry the Kettle, they aren’t even being asked to do much for the money.

Their support for these projects, therefore, can’t be understood as free and informed consent. They’re not exactly negotiating from a position of strength. That they should have to even consider accepting corporate funds in exchange for rights to their ancestral lands in order to provide basic life-saving services and amenities in their communities is a scathing indictment of Canada’s government, historically and contemporarily, and should be a source of abiding national shame.

Instead, we’re subjected to supposedly uplifting promotional material from pipeline companies on integrating traditional knowledge into environmental planning and creating dynamic economic opportunities for Aboriginal communities. This rhetoric is trying to disguise the fact that highly-contingent corporate welfare is being seriously proposed as a solution to the appalling conditions on reserves – conditions created by centuries of persecution and neglect by the same government which is now essentially advocating on behalf of these exact corporations while continuing to fail to honour its responsibilities to Indigenous communities.

In short, the endorsement of pipeline projects by First Nations is not as simple or straightforward as energy companies would have us believe. Their support is in many cases based far more on the much-needed immediate monetary benefits their communities will receive than it is on any convictions that the project in question is beneficial for future generations, safe, and doable within the constraints of climate change.

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