- Access to capital, both financial and human, remains the biggest impediment to Indigenous participation in the energy economy.
- Companies should engage with Indigenous communities from the early stages of project planning in order to establish a strong partnership.
- Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous sides need to validate each other’s strengths and remain open minded in order to move forward constructively.
Energy companies should give Indigenous communities equity positions in energy projects within their jurisdiction to give them a sense of ownership and enhance industry-community collaboration. They must also use their supply chains to encourage Indigenous business development.
What is the relationship between the economic development of Indigenous communities and the energy sector?
Typically, it is the relationship between the non-Indigenous corporations that are developing or running energy projects and the Indigenous communities whose land those projects are on. A lot of Indigenous communities are getting on board with the idea of equity positions within major infrastructure projects. Fort McKay First Nation is now an equity position holder in a major energy infrastructure project, so the community now has a real say in defining the direction of the project. The Trans Mountain Expansion Project (TMX) is also a great opportunity to build equity positions for the First Nations wanting to participate in that project. At Ontario Power Generation (OPG), there are two major hydro facility projects in which First Nations own a 25% and a 33% share. In many renewable energy projects across the country, Indigenous communities are participating as real business partners and as equity position holders. Another opportunity is for us to use more Indigenous and traditional knowledge systems in a world struggling with climate change.
“A lot of Indigenous communities are getting on board with the idea of equity positions within major infrastructure projects.”
What are the biggest challenges Indigenous communities face as part of this relationship?
Access to capital is definitely one of the major challenges. If you do not have a history of developing an economy or if you don’t have big business partners like the Syncrudes and the Suncors of the world, it becomes more challenging. From a capacity point of view, there are often not enough people in Indigenous communities to participate at a representative’s level within the industry. The way around this, for the most part, is by partnering with other organizations or hiring non-Indigenous people to work with your community to advance these types of projects.
What responsibilities should energy companies have when it comes to engaging Indigenous communities and empowering them?
I think the main responsibility is just to get outside of their regular business thinking lines and consider engaging communities early. Canada’s National Energy Board (NEB) has traditionally only examined projects’ engineering and finances when approving or rejecting them. But now, two additional layers – the environment and Indigenous participation – have been incorporated into its decision-making framework. Since the NEB does not have a lot of experience in this area, having Indigenous people at the table would help them move forward.
“Two additional layers – the environment and Indigenous participation – have been incorporated into [the NEB’s] decision-making framework.”
Looking at energy incumbents, Suncor has been able to develop real and meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities for a long time. The company conducts summer programs for Indigenous youth and has close to 72 Indigenous youths working for the company. Diversity is our strength and Indigenous diversity at all levels of the energy industry opens doors.
There is no one silver bullet to any of this – you have to take a multipronged approach when you are an industry. Companies should ensure that they are empowering Indigenous youth that is gaining experience in the energy sector. Indigenous people should be at all levels of the organization. Companies must look at their supply chain and think how each component could impact Indigenous communities. For example, companies can prioritize Indigenous procurement in their supply chain to support the local economy. Again, Suncor is kind of the gold standard in this respect. They spend $600 million a year on local Indigenous businesses and that has contributed to the raising of Fort Mackay’s annual average salary to $73,500.
“Companies should ensure that they are empowering Indigenous youth that is gaining experience in the energy sector. Indigenous people should be at all levels of the organization.”
Lastly, I would encourage companies to engage earlier and engage often. Do not bring Indigenous communities in when you have already put your whole project together. We would like to be part of decision making from the earliest stages. There is still a certain segment of the industry that just wants to go back to the old ways of doing business and not having Indigenous representatives at the table and not having to deal with the environmental issues. But, you cannot go back in time – it just does not work that way anymore.
To sum it up, energy companies can take two steps to empower Indigenous communities. Firstly, they should provide equity positions for Indigenous people in energy projects within their jurisdiction since it will give the community a sense of ownership and enhance industry-community collaboration. Secondly, they need to use their supply chains to encourage Indigenous business development, whether it is through procurement, employment or other ways.
How does the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) mediate between Indigenous and non-Indigenous business interests?
Our membership of over 660 members is constituted of about 65-70% Indigenous members and 35% non-Indigenous members. So, we provide the space for Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses to come together to create opportunities because it is a two-way street. We do not just advocate on behalf of one side.
“Engage earlier and engage often. Do not bring Indigenous communities in when you have already put your whole project together.”
One of the things that I often talk about when I have public speaking engagements is validation. It is really meaningful when someone from the other side validates your opinion. It is one thing when Indigenous people encourage others to listen to the CCAB and emphasize the importance of having Indigenous partners and other key points. But when somebody like Ken Coates or Paul Martin says that, it takes a totally different meaning. The same is true when I work with Indigenous communities. There are corporations that are doing great work, so Indigenous communities need to celebrate that and validate them. We need both Indigenous and non-Indigenous businesses to work together in a proactive and productive fashion. The government’s role is to put in place the policies that will generate those types of interactions.
What do you say to critics within the Indigenous community who oppose energy projects?
I would advise both the non-Indigenous as well as the Indigenous sides to be courageous, remain open minded and take a look at the actual outcomes of strong business relationships. This does not apply to all companies, but there are a lot of companies with great leadership that really care about community empowerment. Energy is such a polarizing debate in this country and too much of the noise that we hear is emotion-based, not fact-based. In the past, the oil and gas sector has not done a great job of talking about its work with Indigenous communities, which is why you need validators from Indigenous communities and environmental organizations that can help tell the story.
“Energy is such a polarizing debate in this country and too much of the noise that we hear is emotion-based, not fact-based.”