“A share and a say” in Canada’s energy future
Inside Energy

Seeking a 'share and a say' in Canada’s energy future

Indigenous communities find opportunity – and renewed cultural strength – as Canada moves toward a lower-carbon economy.

By Thomas Francis on Jul 16, 2021

Crystal Smith, the elected chief councillor of the Haisla Nation in Canada’s north-west British Columbia, doesn’t speak her native language quite as well as her daughters, and she’s happy to explain the reason: her daughters have attended culture and language courses funded through economic growth in the Haisla community.

That growth has come from the Haisla Nation deepening its investment in the energy sector – especially LNG Canada, a project being built in Haisla traditional territory, bringing nearly $2.5 billion in contracts and subcontracts to Indigenous and local businesses.

It is among a number of projects where Indigenous Peoples are playing a leading role – both in the production of energy and in projects strengthening nature’s capacity for absorbing greenhouse gases. These projects are allowing them to reinforce their cultural heritage and grow their economies, all while helping the country achieve its climate ambitions.

Lng canada chief
Crystal Smith is the elected chief councillor of the Haisla Nation.

Indigenous communities seek “a share and a say” in their country’s future economy – a phrase first used by a Haisla chief several decades ago during negotiations with prospective companies.

“We have watched as our territory felt the impact of development without our participation,” says Chief Smith. “This former chief, he used to say that one day, we would have ‘a share’ of the economic development in our territory and ‘a say’ in how that economic development was done.

“All we have ever wanted was an opportunity for our people to flourish and provide for their families.”

Rebuilding a cultural identity

Canada’s First Nations, Inuit and Métis have always honoured the land, water and wildlife. But that connection has been frayed since the arrival of European settlers in the 17th Century.

Children were taken from Indigenous families and put into residential schools, where they were forbidden to speak their own language, or to follow traditional customs. Chief Smith’s own experience of this so-called schooling is the reason she feels she needs to relearn the language of her Haisla youth.

“The goal of our community is to rebuild our cultural identity, following the colonial aspects of our history,” says Chief Smith. Forced assimilation at schools ended in 1996. “We still didn’t have the resources to really invest in revitalising our culture – but we have that opportunity now.”

New project brings new prosperity

LNG Canada, a liquefied natural gas project, is the largest energy investment in Canadian history. Shell owns a 40% interest in the joint venture with PETRONAS, PetroChina, Mitsubishi and KOGAS. The plant is expected to supply natural gas to countries like China, where it would be used to generate power at 45-55% the carbon emissions of coal.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions aligns with Haisla values, and among the opportunities seized by Haisla businesses is a $375 million contract to provide the tugboats to guide LNG tankers to terminals along British Columbia’s Pacific Coast.

Typically, tugboats are powered by fuel oil, which brings heavy emissions, but this fleet will be powered by electric and gas-powered motors.

Contracts like these, as well as settlement money from the use of land, has made it possible for Haisla leaders to build health centres and high-quality housing, along with programmes to promote education and employment.

“We’re focused on removing barriers that have historically been a hindrance to people in our community,” says Chief Smith. “We’re able to guide our people on a path to success, from high school straight into employment as teachers, lawyers and doctors.”

Regenerating forests

Other Indigenous communities are finding that business partnerships can help their efforts to improve the natural world in their territories.

The wildfires of 2017 devastated forests in the interior of British Columbia. The Tŝilhqot’in Nation (pronounced tsill-koa-teen) fought alongside provincial firefighters to bring the blaze under control, but not before many of its members lost their homes.

“It is very traumatic for our people, to look out the window, or across the river, and to see black forest everywhere,” says Chief Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chairman of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government (TNG).

“Everything now is about regenerating,” says Alphonse. “For a tree to get back to full health, it may take 100-150 years, but we think in terms of generations – my kids and my grandchildren, and what we’re leaving them.”

Chief joe
Chief Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chairman of the Tŝilhqot’in National Government (TNG)

In some areas that have been slow to regenerate, TNG has teamed with Shell on a reforestation project where some 840,000 trees will be planted across an area of about 700 hectares – more than twice the size of New York City’s Central Park.

A Tŝilhqot’in-owned forestry company is managing the tree planting. Restoring the land will provide habitat for wildlife such as moose and deer, as well as growing conditions needed to produce plants used in traditional foods and medicines.

The Twin Sisters Nursery, in north-east British Columbia, has a similar objective. A venture between two Indigenous communities – the Saulteau and West Moberly First Nations – Twin Sisters restores land that has been disrupted by industrial activities, like mining or oil and gas exploration.

“Plants that most people see as weeds, they all have a meaning and a purpose in First Nations culture,” says Tamara Dokkie, who chairs the nursery board. “And when one plant is damaged, it poses a risk of damaging the health of other plants, animals and even people.”

Twin Sisters collects seeds, propagates them and distributes native plants in British Columbia. Shell helped fund a second greenhouse for the nursery and last year provided funding along with the Canadian federal and provincial government for a new biomass conversion system to replace the propane fuel formerly used for heat and electricity.

“By getting away from greenhouse gases,” says Dokkie, “we’re staying true to what the community wants.”

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