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OPINION: A First Nations pipeline toward reconciliation

Project Reconciliation Feature 400x270

What if the Trans Mountain Pipeline became the same kind of physical, unifying force in this country that the transcontinental railway proved to be more than 100 years ago?

The Trans Mountain Pipeline has long been a source of bitter and unresolved division in Canada.

The future of its proposed expansion to transport more crude oil than ever before from Alberta to the Pacific coast has for years pitted environmentalists, First Nations communities and the British Columbia government against Canada’s natural resources sector as well as its federal and Alberta governments.

It’s a crack in the nation’s foundation that remains unrepaired. It’s a painful wound in the nation’s psyche that remains unhealed.

But what if instead of driving Canadians apart, Trans Mountain could bring them together? What if it became the same kind of physical, unifying force in this country that the transcontinental railway proved to be more than 100 years ago?

Except this time, rather than being ignored, Canada’s First Nations played a lead role in making it all happen — and were among the prime beneficiaries.

The $6.9-billion plan by an Indigenous-led group to buy a majority stake in Trans Mountain could mean this pipeline will do all these things. And so, even in this early stage, this bid should be welcomed.

Appropriately enough, the group calls itself Project Reconciliation. It wants to start negotiations with the federal government, which bought the pipeline for $4.5 billion from Kinder Morgan Canada last year in the desperate hope that the Liberals could, where the private company had failed, get the expansion built.

One of the main reasons a court later ruled the pipeline could not proceed, temporarily at least, was that it said Ottawa had not consulted enough with some B.C. First Nations living along the pipeline’s route. While the federal government has since conducted even more consultations, there are still pipeline foes trying to derail the project.

But if Project Reconciliation’s offer is accepted, even diehard opponents would have to admit there would be a stronger case, indeed a moral licence, for Trans Mountain to go ahead. The group says nearly 340 First Nations communities in B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan could share ownership in the project.

Once the pipeline expansion was complete, Project Reconciliation would invest $200 million a year from its earnings into a First Nations sovereign wealth fund. Indigenous people would own a major stake in a major and lucrative natural resources infrastructure project.

Indigenous people living in the area could benefit from sharing in the well-paying jobs the project would provide. They would share in the opportunity and prosperity so many other Canadians take for granted. Indigenous people would be willing, indeed eager partners with non-Indigenous folk, too.

Nor would taxpayers be further tapped on the shoulder. Project Reconciliation would finance the deal through bank loans underwritten by commitments from oil shippers.

While those are all grounds to hope Project Reconciliation receives a fair hearing, getting it involved in this pipeline makes sense for another reason. It could help in the fight against climate change.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals have accepted the almost impossible task of satisfying the demands of both anti-climate-change environmentalists who want Alberta’s oil to remain in the ground and the natural resources community that maintains oil production is still essential to Canada’s economy.

And so the Liberals have championed both carbon taxes and Trans Mountain. Their plan isn’t perfect. But it beats the alternatives presented by the Conservatives, New Democrats or Greens. It’s an attempt to strike a balance between fiercely competing interests, which by nature is guaranteed to make some people unhappy.

Nonetheless, it serves the greater national interest. At this point, so does Project Reconciliation’s proposal.

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