A pipeline of their own

First Nations are taking charge in a revamp of the energy sector, says Peter C. Newman

Bloomberg Photo/Scott Dalton

Scott Dalton/Bloomberg

Canada’s aboriginals have always been the ghosts of Canadian history. Their lives and spirits were torn apart by Europeans who occupied their continent. Their aspirations to decide their own destinies were deliberately kept out of reach, since much of their traditional lands were no longer their own. To them, land was not real estate. As Grand Council of the Crees Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come rightly proclaimed: “Our land is our memory.” It’s time to even the score.

How often have news reports been published about impassioned Aboriginals holding back Canadian pipeline construction? Anytime anybody builds a pipeline, would be my estimate. In mid-April at a press conference in Vancouver, a host of First Nations groups signalled a dramatic shift in tactics, insisting that from now on they will not only demand to be heard, but will expect drastic improvements in the practices of companies like Calgary’s Enbridge and its proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, which would cut through the traditional territories of First Nations in Alberta and B.C. The event was the launch of a new First Nations-backed pipeline company, Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., with a proposal for a rival pipeline from Alberta to the coast.

Details remain unclear. The proposed pipeline would carry light crude, not sludgy bitumen—having been refined somewhere along the route—and its exact path and coastal destination have not been revealed. The pipeline’s proponents have insisted it must have the support of all affected First Nations before it can proceed. At this point, 30 First Nations are onside and Eagle Spirit chairman and president Calvin Helin says he is negotiating with others to obtain the “social licence” to operate on their lands.

Instead of merely preaching, the First Nations are determined to have a direct hand in planning—probably even building—the pipeline. Such projects have traditionally battled for adequate funding to tame and exploit our energy resources. This will be no different. Early estimates peg the cost of the refinery and pipeline at $18 billion. No final decision has been made as to the identity of the financiers, but there is one obvious contender: the Aquilini family, who control what is among the richest, most active and most imaginative money pools in the country. Luigi Aquilini, the billionaire patriarch of the Aquilini Investment Group—owners of the Vancouver Canucks and various real estate and agricultural holdings—was in attendance at the launch event in Vancouver, and said his company would arrange funding for the project if Eagle Spirit is able to secure buy-in from First Nations along the route.

The realm of what may be possible is suddenly wide open. The necessary fact is that Canada’s First Nations are reaching out for fresh mandates—to be full partners—instead of acting like ghosts from our past.

The controversial shift from eternal complainers to inner-directed activists organizing an alternate approach to harnessing energy resources is largely due to the leadership of Helin, 54. To label this initiative “alternate,” though, is the understatement of the year—or decade, or millennium. What Helin represents is a First Nations-led revamp of Canada’s energy sector, in the sense that, in his view, it ought to operate in the interest of those it directly affects. It is neither land grab nor revolution, but the spirited reaction of a frustrated people who insist on having direct input into the quality of their environment, opportunities for meaningful employment, and financial compensation for future risks. “We are requesting a proper consultation process with impacted First Nations, so that alternate pipeline proposals are shaped with First Nations’ direct input from the outset,” Helin said. “That includes the location of a marine terminus far less risky than recent proposals, the substitution of synthetic crude—the lightest form of crude oil—instead of bitumen, which bristles with environmental risks. We remain on the side of amicable solutions and will continue to reach out to affected communities.”

Dressed in a smart Italian suit, Helin represents a fresh approach. (Confession: I obtained an insight into his thinking as the editor of his three most recent books.) He grew up in Lax Kw’alaams (formerly Port Simpson), 35 km north of Prince Rupert, where his first entrepreneurial venture was to organize 50 independent fishermen into a group that made its own equipment and raised the price of its catch.

He later earned a law degree and operates a karate academy (fourth-degree black belt), where for 13 years he and his sensei, Toshiaki Nomada, have provided free martial arts lessons to the poorest inner-city kids in Vancouver. He headed several Aboriginal trade missions to China and led the Aboriginal arm of a major Vancouver law firm. He’s also involved in a proposed multi-use urban development project on Maori land in New Zealand. His appropriate personal motto is “wai wah”—just do it.

It couldn’t be timelier. Canada’s Aboriginals have moved to the right side of history at last.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.