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Illustration by Jeannie Phan

Canada’s new government has lowered the boom on resource extraction approvals that don’t meet federal expectations for controlling greenhouse gas emissions. So who wants to be the next batter up in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) export sweepstakes – the first to test Ottawa’s resolve on meeting one of the Trudeau government’s primary election pledges?

It may come as a surprise to learn that Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has already approved a west coast LNG export project as one of her first executive decisions, notably doing so one week before subjecting another LNG export project to further intense regulatory scrutiny.

Woodfibre LNG, owned by Pacific Oil & Gas and sited at Squamish, British Columbia, is the approved project. It then immediately awarded a major engineering contract, thus setting itself ahead of the pack as competing projects tumbled back to the regulatory blender to face the attendant uncertainty and delay.

So how did this project gain such a competitive advantage?

Here’s the answer by Woodfibre’s VP of corporate affairs, Byng Giraud, laid out for the public at a Vancouver conference in late 2015. It is one of the most strategic commentaries ever from corporate Canada and no doubt influenced the federal approval:

“We needed a breakthrough because the Squamish First Nation was not onside with the proposed environmental assessment process. So we engaged them in their own environmental process. We had to respect the outcome – it took a couple of years of tough slogging and ended with the imposition of 25 conditions. The process was unique in that there was no outward or upstairs reporting. These conditions were written up in our Squamish Nation Environmental Agreement and when that was signed we gained our Squamish Nation Environmental Certificate – meaning that we are bound by these instruments and can’t walk away without repercussions.

“We adopted the philosophy that the First Nations community would be a huge part of our workforce and part of running this facility. We saw contracts as something only used in fights, and consequently strove to develop an understanding above that – one based upon trust. (To the audience in closing) If you didn’t think that this was going to happen, then you probably weren’t paying attention.”

This was one of the most sophisticated strategic moves made by a member of Canada’s business community, and it came just as First Nations broke through the 200-legal-win mark in the resources sector, denoting their ability to determine project outcomes.

It shows that once natives officially endorse a project, federal approvals (if not all regulatory approvals) will typically follow. It’s akin to them granting a project a “Good Housekeeping seal of approval” that can be used to proper effect when matters go before regulatory or judicial review. The numerous attempts to circumvent this process have come up empty, demonstrating why Canada’s First Nations have ascended to the role of “resource rulers.”

So when Prime Minister Trudeau told the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) general assembly that “no relationship is more important to me, and to Canada, than the one with First Nations, the Metis, and Inuit,” he was notionally rolling out the red carpet for any proponent to gain project approval by getting First Nations onside. That paradigm shift has now been validated by Woodfibre’s recent approval.

Flash back three years to the same convention, same place, a much different paradigm: that’s when the AFN leadership abruptly downed tools and proceeded en masse to crash Parliament. The house was in session and managed to barricade the main door; a brief standoff ensued, with the native leadership ultimately retreating to the refrain of “Wait till you try to come to our homeland” echoing in the halls of power.

Notably, that same morning, the National Post ran the headline: “The fate of our resources is in the hands of our most disadvantaged citizens”. Sadly, nothing’s changed three years later; only the stark realization that the rise of native empowerment (on the ground, in the courts, in corporate boardrooms) is without a doubt the unrelenting driver behind this necessary and essential change in political direction.

It was in 2004 that “free, prior and informed consent” first registered on the mining scene; and that’s also when native land rights started to gain real momentum. From the Voisey’s Bay nickel mine in Labrador, to the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project and the Cliffs chromite discovery (now defunct) in the Ring of Fire, the assertion of native land rights dictated whether these projects proceeded or not – the common denominator being key native legal wins that either derailed regulatory processes, voided ministerial permits, or both.

Premier Rachel Notley flanked by Treaty No.6 Grand Chief Tony Alexis from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation while announcing Alberta's Climate Leadership Plan.

Premier Rachel Notley flanked by Treaty No.6 Grand Chief Tony Alexis from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation while announcing Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan.

South of the Trans-Canada Highway, native land rights assertions more often than not resulted in on-the-ground pushback. Oka, Ipperwash, Caledonia and Rexton showed an ever-increasing militancy and an emerging national native alignment. That’s because native empowerment was consistently downplayed as a political force all along the rural-urban fault line right across Canada. A case can even be made that native pushback on the road to Rexton changed the New Brunswick government, resulting in the replacement of the (pro-fracking) minister of environment with the province’s leading eco-activist.

So when Premier Rachel Notley’s inaugural Throne Speech last year opened with “Alberta is a province of Indigenous people here for 1,000 years and we’re learning to respect that” and closed with “a Canadian Energy Strategy is now a pending necessity and reality, as well, a respectful relationship with Indigenous peoples” we can see how the major players are realigning in recognition of First Nations, Metis and Inuit assuming the mantle of resource rulers.

In a year-end interview, the president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers conceded that his organization had been left out of the loop when the Notley government took public stage with key captains of industry, several environmentalists and a regional chief in full headdress to announce its climate change strategy.

The unmistakable message here is that resource proponents no longer need to embrace groupthink. Working with progressives, natives and environmentalists may actually prove to be the only way to go after all.

They now realize that there’s an easier way to do business than by butting heads with massively empowered First Nations. That’s because the latter have redrawn the map of Canada – one native legal win at a time.

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