By Chris Varcoe
Imagine First Nations across Western Canada being able to buy the lion’s share of the Trans Mountain pipeline from the federal government.
Now, imagine it builds greater acceptance for the project.
Finally, imagine the ownership generates $250 million a year for First Nations and Metis communities, with some of that money used to create a sovereign wealth fund capable of buying additional infrastructure assets.
During a presentation at the Calgary Petroleum Club on Thursday, leaders of Project Reconciliation laid out an ambitious plan to acquire Trans Mountain.
The discussion came less than 48 hours after the Trudeau government re-approved the pipeline’s expansion, while confirming Ottawa would consider selling up to 100 per cent of the development to Indigenous-led groups.
“It’s time. If not now, when?” Project Reconciliation chairman Delbert Wapass, former chief of the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan, said at the Petroleum Joint Venture Association event.
At least three separate groups have formed that want to buy a piece of Trans Mountain.
It’s not hard to see the powerful economic potential this step could unlock, creating jobs, lifting communities out of poverty and building stronger, more enduring support for the venture.
“This project could be a real kick-off point for our industry,” said Tamarack Valley Energy CEO Brian Schmidt, who spoke at the event.
The idea of First Nations acquiring part of the Edmonton-to-Burnaby oil pipeline has gained momentum since the Trudeau government acquired the pipeline for $4.5 billion from Kinder Morgan last year.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau insists the enterprise will be sold back to the private sector once the expansion project — costing more than $7.4 billion — is substantially built.
The federal government will launch discussions this summer with Indigenous groups that want to talk about “economic participation” in the project.
Government officials will hold meetings in Edmonton, Kamloops, Vancouver and Victoria, in July and August with interested parties.
“We will want Indigenous communities to be part of the discussion,” Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi said in an interview.
“We are not going to pick one or two, or pick one over the other. We are going to do that in a co-developmental way … to ensure that they develop the path for equity.”
Groups like Project Reconciliation, Alberta-led Iron Coalition and the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group in British Columbia all want to be at the table.
Chief Michael LeBourdais of the Whispering Pines/Clinton Indian Band, who is also chair of the B.C. group, is pleased the expansion is moving ahead.
He noted Whispering Pines, located north of Kamloops and along the pipeline route, expressed interest in acquiring an ownership position several years ago in discussions with the Harper government and Kinder Morgan.
“Equity would gives us continued environmental oversight on the whole project … give our group of people here — and other First Nations along the right of way that have title and rights — the comfort that the pipeline will be operated in a safe manner,” LeBourdais said in an interview.
Some First Nations in B.C. adamantly oppose the project.
Each has the right to engage in discussions about ownership, but that won’t alter the resolve of the environmental opposition to Trans Mountain, said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs.
“There are just as many and more First Nation communities that are vehemently opposed to the project because of the threat it represents to the environment,” said Phillip, a critic of Trans Mountain.
In Alberta, the recently formed Iron Coalition is on a membership drive, inviting First Nations and Metis communities across the province to join up.
As part of its plan, Iron Coalition wants to redistribute all profits to member communities.
If the ownership model works, it could be used in other developments across the country, said Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation and co-chair of the group.
“Being at the table is really important. Indigenous people for a long time have always been outside,” he said Wednesday.
“But we are in a position right now where we can get ourselves to the table, position ourselves so that we are fulfilling and looking at the future of our communities.”
At its presentation in Calgary, Project Reconciliation leaders provided details of their plan, noting any First Nations from B.C., Alberta or Saskatchewan could own a stake, although those along the route would have a bigger slice.
Managing director Steve Mason expects the project to generate about $250 million a year in funds available for redistribution, with 20 per cent dispersed immediately to the owners.
The remainder would go into a sovereign wealth fund that would be invested in other energy infrastructure, such as power plants or electrical transmission lines.
Mason said the group would be willing to pay $2.3 billion for a 51 per cent stake in Trans Mountain — based on the price Ottawa paid last year — and its “ask” of government would be a temporary federal loan guarantee, although banks would finance it.
In British Columbia, LeBourdais said he could see the B.C. group working with Iron Coalition in Alberta, as the Trans Mountain pipeline runs between the two provinces.
“We live here. This is our valley, this is our river, these are our salmon. So the risks are different for us. The risks are greater,” he added.
It’s expected the pipeline will take at least 30 months to build, which means the ownership conversation with Ottawa could take a couple of years to conclude.
The process is only beginning.
With the expansion project getting the green light, however, the idea of Indigenous ownership of Trans Mountain has taken another step forward, from imagination to becoming reality.
Chris Varcoe is a Calgary Herald columnist.