This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star.
By Ken Coates and JP Gladu, April 15, 2022
Last week’s sale of a $1.12 billion stake in seven Alberta pipelines to First Nation and Métis communities is one of the most important milestones in Canadian economic history.
The acquisition of the Enbridge pipeline shares by Athabasca Indigenous Investments, which is owned by almost two dozen Treaty 6 and Treaty 8 First Nations and Métis governments, reinforces two important patterns: Indigenous economic engagement with the energy sector, and the growing Indigenous presence in Canadian prosperity.
Three decades ago it was news whenever a First Nations, Métis or Inuit purchased a small-town gas station, hotel or retail store (typically in an Indigenous community). For years, Inuit art sales were one of Canada’s few sustained Indigenous commercial ventures that supported artistic expression, community development and personal incomes.
Indigenous entrepreneurship unfolded slowly, constrained by almost no access to investment capital, non-Indigenous resistance to First Nations, Métis and Inuit businesses, and limited experience in business.
Today, large-scale Indigenous investments are almost routine:
- In 2020, Nova Scotia’s Membertou First Nation led the $1 billion purchase of one of Canada’s largest seafood companies, Clearwater Seafoods.
- The Squamish and Musqueam First Nations are fronting separate large scale residential projects in Vancouver.
- Suncor’s partnership with the Fort McKay First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation saw the First Nations invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the oilsands supply chain.
- On the B.C. coast, First Nations have purchased several high-profile resorts and established Indigenous-themed tourism operations.
- In Yukon, the Vunta Gwitchin are major shareholders in regional airline Air North, while Canadian North, a major airline in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, is owned by Makivik Corporation and the Inuvialuit Development Group.
These examples can be multiplied dozens of times. Indigenous communities are investing in renewable energy, including hydroelectric plants, solar panel installations and wind farms. Economically successful First Nation communities are involved in hotels, casinos, construction companies, food distributors, environmental management services, retailers, and so on.
Less noticeable but equally important are investments related to collaborations with mining, forestry, and energy sectors. From a near standing start 40 years ago, literally hundreds of service and supply companies are now owned and operated by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples.
While most Indigenous investors focus on their own territories or regions, many opt to invest more broadly. Given the non-economic location of most reserves, many seek investments that are related to major cities or large resource projects. As with any sound strategy, this can give communities both immediate cash flow and long-term wealth creation. Such arrangements also produce own-source revenues, to be expended by the Indigenous governments without cumbersome, paternalistic federal government approvals.
We can expect to see more purchases like the stake in the Enbridge pipelines, especially through Indigenous consortia. Few communities have the finances to tackle massive investments on their own, however a combination of court judgments, claims settlements, resource revenue sharing arrangements, Treaty Land Entitlement agreements, and other revenue-producing opportunities are giving Indigenous Peoples serious investment capital for the first time.
Legal requirements for developers to consult with Indigenous Peoples have also opened doors for equity investments in major infrastructure projects, like the 10-per-cent stake that First Nations secured in the Coastal Gas Link pipeline. Ontario’s Hydro One signed an agreement with the Gwayakocchigewin Limited Partnership (GLP) to build the Waasigan Transmission Line project in Northwestern Ontario, giving the nine First Nations access to a 50-per-cent stake in the project.
With stronger leadership from Indigenous governments, regional consortia and co-ordinating organizations like the First Nations Major Project Coalition, Indigenous communities are overcoming challenges like geographic isolation or limited financial resources to negotiate substantial deals with resource firms and infrastructure developers. That First Nations and Métis are still trying to purchase the Trans Mountain Pipeline and are supporting a gas pipeline to Prince Rupert, B.C., shows the determination of Indigenous governments to end the poverty and economic marginalization that has defined their communities for generations.
The Enbridge pipeline deal won’t be the last major agreement involving Indigenous governments and the private sector. Barred by government policy and centuries of racial discrimination from sharing in Canadian prosperity, and empowered by decades of legal victories that recognized their role in Canada, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people are now players at the table.
They are taking back their country — and our country — in a stepwise fashion, using their resources to buy companies, infrastructure, and revenue-producing assets that will generate the money needed to determine their destiny. And this, fellow Canadians, is one of the most exciting things to happen in Canada in decades.