Ken CoatsKen Coates takes to task politicians who project their own opposition to development onto Indigenous groups.

Not all Indigenous peoples oppose development -- but you'd have a hard time explaining that to many politicians who continue to staunchly oppose projects like Kinder Morgan and Energy East.

By Ken Coates, July 11, 2017

Federal NDP leadership candidate and current Ontario MPP, Jagmeet Singh, is the latest politician to jump into the critical world of Indigenous affairs by offering quick and simple solutions to complex issues.

He has declared that he will, if elected prime minister, adopt and implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, stop the Kinder Morgan pipeline to the B.C. coast and kill the Energy East pipeline for good measure. These are no doubt popular positions in some NDP circles, and even with significant numbers of Indigenous communities, but it is a mistake to project them uncritically onto Indigenous peoples.

Not all Indigenous peoples oppose development -- but you'd have a hard time explaining that to many politicians who continue to staunchly oppose projects like Kinder Morgan and Energy East.

As Mr. Singh’s website declares, “Not only does significantly increasing oil production and international oil exports through these pipeline projects undermine our efforts to reduce our emissions, but it conflicts with UNDRIP. Canada needs to commit to UNDRIP and this means saying no to the Kinder Morgan and Energy East pipeline projects.”

What about the consent of those Indigenous communities that are actively engaged in resource development, and who, with conditions, support pipelines?

Mr. Singh is not alone. BC NDP premier-designate John Horgan and his Green Party partner, Andrew Weaver, also support UNDRIP and have repeatedly opposed major resource projects, including Kinder Morgan and the Site C dam. They have also indicated a commitment to community-centred consultation and the general empowerment of Indigenous peoples, which is certainly positive.

However, if we are to accept the “free, prior and informed consent” elements of UNDRIP, or even the well-established doctrine of “duty to consult” in Canadian law, then what about the consent of those Indigenous communities that are actively engaged in resource development, and who, with conditions, support pipelines?

As pipeline proponents and previous governments have discovered the hard way, what is required is policy derived from careful and nuanced evaluation, and extensive discussions with Indigenous leaders, not simple declarative statements such as those we are now seeing from the Canadian left.

A case in point: During the previous federal election campaign, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rushed to pronounce the Liberal Party’s support for full implementation of UNDRIP, and the entire list of recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission without fully understanding the financial, legal and political implications. That his government had to back down from Mr. Trudeau’s oft-quoted statement that “governments grant permits, communities grant permission,” and from his commitment to UNDRIP when the implications of implementation became clear, should be a salutary warning for anyone jumping quickly into the breach on these topics.

Consider also the federal government’s ban on oil tanker traffic on the Northwest Coast, which was announced in part as a measure to protect Indigenous peoples from development. As a statement from Eagle Spirit Energy declared in response: “As Indigenous peoples, we want to preserve the right to determine the types of activities that take place in our territories and do not accept that the federal government should tell us how to preserve, protect and work within our traditional territories.” In words that echo the sentiments of First Nations opposing the Kinder Morgan pipeline, the Eagle Spirit group said, “Once again the federal government is not respecting nation-to-nation dialogue and consultation and is forging ahead on proposals without the consent of many Indigenous communities.”

The lessons for Canadian politicians should be clear by now. Not all Indigenous peoples oppose development.

Broad claims by politicians on behalf of Indigenous peoples reveal how little public recognition there is of the great efforts Indigenous peoples have made to secure a fair place for their communities and companies in the resource sector. Pipeline firms have numerous agreements with Indigenous communities. So do forestry and mining companies. Indigenous leaders may oppose one project, but accept another.

The lessons for Canadian politicians should be clear by now. Not all Indigenous peoples oppose development. Many, if not most, realize their hopes for economic well-being and independence from the Government of Canada rest on carefully planned and appropriately structured resource projects. Most major projects, including Kinder Morgan, have Indigenous communities on both sides of the debate, as is the case with non-Indigenous peoples and communities.

But in every case, what is required is a deeper and more nuanced understanding by politicians of Indigenous needs and desires, and a willingness to come to the table and speak with them and not for them.

Ken Coates is a Munk Senior Fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.