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Strong aboriginal relations is key to future energy-sector development

Oct 7, 2014

Aboriginal panel

Pat McJannett, Co-President of the HBA Energy & Resources Club, introduces the panellists (L-R) Kendall Dilling, Vice-President, Environmental & Regulatory Affairs, Cenovus Energy; Vern Janvier, Chief, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation; Michael Keenan, Associate Deputy Minister, Natural Resources Canada; and Bill Gallagher, Lawyer and author of Resource Rulers: Fortune and Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources.

Accessing Canada's wealth of natural resources involves opening up to native community relations.

That’s why the HBA Energy & Resources Club and the Ivey Energy Policy and Management Centre hosted an expert panel discussion on September 30 on the policies and strategies that might drive energy-sector development forward in a mutually beneficial way.

“Aboriginal relations is one of the issues that is going to really define and shape the future of the energy sector in Canada,” said Guy Holburn, Director of the Ivey Energy Policy and Management Centre and Suncor Chair in Energy Policy. “It hasn’t always been possible to get different stakeholders to agree on best paths forward. Discussing what are the right policies and the right strategies is critical for successfully developing the energy sector for mutual societal benefit.”

The event brought together four leaders from industry, government, law, and First Nations communities. Here are some of their insights on the role of aboriginal groups in the future of the energy sector.

Kendall Dilling, Vice-President, Environmental & Regulatory Affairs, Cenovus Energy

While Cenovus Energy develops the oil sands in northern Alberta, it keeps land use and environmental concerns top of mind. It pioneered the SkyStrat™ drilling rig, a helicopter-portable rig that eliminates the need for roads and reduces its environmental impact. The company is also piloting techniques that use less steam for oil recovery to reduce production of greenhouse gas emissions. At its operations, Cenovus drills into the oil sands reservoir and injects steam to soften the thick oil so it can flow to the surface.

Dilling said discussions with neighbouring aboriginal communities revealed one of their top issues is preserving land and the environment for future generations.

“One thing I really admire about aboriginal leaders is when they make decisions, they think long term. It’s in their culture. Corporate Canada struggles to look beyond the next quarter. Political leaders struggle to look beyond the next election. Yet aboriginal leaders have figured out that they need to look long term,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a challenge to work together because they have that different perspective, but, as we learn from them, I’m just so impressed. And of course you can imagine, if you have that long-term perspective, one of the most important things on your mind is the environment.”

Dilling attributes his company’s success to how it has engaged with its aboriginal neighbours and helped them to participate in the economic opportunities while working with them to mitigate any impact on the environment.

“We’ve been working with the communities in establishing agreements that will last them the life of the development,” he said. “This development is happening in their backyards so they should absolutely be sharing in the benefits.”

Vern Janvier, Chief, Chipewyan Prairie Dene First Nation

For every large natural resources development project in Canada, there’s an aboriginal group that could stop the project, said Janvier. That’s because treaties between aboriginals and newcomers to Canada written more than 120 years ago protect much of the land that is targeted for development.

Janvier said all natural resources development projects need to take into account these treaties and involve aboriginal groups in the consultation process.

“One of the most important ways that we can have a successful partnership in the energy projects is through honest, straightforward communication,” he said. “If these projects aren’t properly set up and if the issues are not properly dealt with, the future of Canada will always be in jeopardy. It will always be a problem.”

Janvier said aboriginal groups should be invited to participate in technical and environmental studies and their businesses should be involved in project employment.

Michael Keenan, Associate Deputy Minister, Natural Resources Canada

Since Canada has approximately $675-billion-worth of natural resources projects planned for the next decade, the opportunities for both the Canadian economy and aboriginal communities are enormous. But to seize on those opportunities, industry and government and aboriginal communities need to build stronger relationships and aboriginal communities need the opportunity to participate significantly in these projects.

“The duty to consult is a serious legal obligation. It is driving, along with a number of other factors, a fundamental shift in our relationship with aboriginal people in Canada and it plays out dramatically on energy projects and natural resources projects,” he said. “There are tough issues, but slowly and surely you can see agreements coming together. You can see trust.”

Aboriginal communities are a vital source of future workers for the Natural Resource projects that now offer the opportunity of employment close to their community. Skills training and education programs for aboriginal communities will be critical, he said.

Bill Gallagher, Lawyer and author of Resource Rulers: Fortune and Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources

Whether it’s fracking bans or the Ring of Fire mining project controversy, the number of legal cases involving resource-sector disputes is enormous –and growing.

“There are massive resource projects twisting in the wind,” he said. “Native empowerment is a key force in determining project outcomes.”

Gallagher stressed the need for industry and government to work out power-sharing arrangements with native communities for resource projects to avoid the courts.

“Basically, we’re left in a situation where the courts are filling in the vacuum and showing leadership,” he said. “There’s a huge social justice component to this. We have to think about what sort of country we have become and what sort of country we want to be.” 

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