A pipeline to the Port of Churchill would revitalize the long-neglected economies of northern Manitoba and northern Saskatchewan.
But the ultimate success of this proposed project to Churchill, Man., will depend on the involvement and support of Indigenous communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.
This alternate route to get oil to ocean tankers was proposed when concerns were raised about the success of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
Northern communities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba have long said they’ve been neglected by governments, with lack of public infrastructure a common complaint.
So it was a very good sign when Grand Chief Arlen Dumas of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) urged the two provinces to engage with northern Indigenous communities early on in discussions about a pipeline.
“The AMC calls on Saskatchewan Premier Scott and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister to ensure that First Nations in Manitoba are involved in the discussions for the development of an oil pipeline to Churchill. First Nations in Manitoba must be involved, consulted and engaged in the process in a manner that respects their rights and interests. This includes considerations of First Nations’ interests in other infrastructure, including the railway, and, if developed, their involvement that leads to positive economic benefits and prosperity,” he said.
The willingness to engage on this issue on behalf of Manitoba’s main Indigenous organizations stands in stark contrast with the approach of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs (UBCIC). The B.C. organization has rejected almost all natural resource projects planned in that province, from Trans Mountain to the Site C hydroelectric dam.
There doesn’t seem to be a project that UBCIC supports, creating conflict with B.C. Indigenous communities that want development and economic opportunity.
In particular, tensions are high in remote northern B.C. communities where development opportunities are hard to come by. For instance, when some northern B.C. communities opposed the federal government’s oil tanker ban and sought exemptions from it, they faced opposition from UBCIC and other B.C. coastal First Nations.
Indigenous communities in northern Manitoba need to come together now to discuss their strategies and support for a pipeline development, to avoid the kinds of problems that have plagued B.C. First Nations.
Northern Manitoba First Nations should also ensure they bring all the affected communities onside and that they receive full assent from within their communities based on their own governance system.
The lesson from the Wetʼsuwetʼen First Nation protests is that Indigenous communities must decide about decision-making processes internally before engaging with resource proponents.
Companies involved in such projects should be willing to give these communities wide latitude to do internal governance work prior to signing any agreements.
And these northern communities can’t wait for government to come up with a plan. First Nation leaders should be approaching public and private lenders about buying a stake in any pipeline so these communities can enjoy the benefits over the longer term.
It’s not a foregone conclusion that the province will expend the necessary amount of political capital to see this proposal to completion. The reality is that the government tends to focus disproportionately on the needs of the southern half of the province.
Getting communities – Indigenous or otherwise – engaged in a potential Churchill pipeline project would allow the northern region to take control of its economic destiny. And allow the people of the region to stop being dependent on an often-negligent provincial government.
To that end, First Nations in northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan should look to partnership models like the one signed between the Quebec government and the northern Crees. The parties recently signed a $4.7-billion agreement to extend rail infrastructure and mining development into northern Quebec.
The Quebec partnership includes effective habitat and ecosystem protections. Northern Prairie First Nations should push for a similar kind of agreement, which would be a game changer for the region.
In a climate of Western Canada alienation, northern Manitoba Indigenous communities could also initiate discussions about redrawing their borders to accommodate coastal access for the northern reaches, if the provincial government fails to come on board.
Now is the time for northern Indigenous communities in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to push for engagement on the Churchill project, before the opportunity disappears.
Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.