First Nations eye Trans Mountain pipeline
Strolling between the banks of glowing slot machines, Robert Morin seems very much like he’s still in charge at the River Cree Resort and Casino. Security guards nod, dealers say hello, and a cocktail waitress offers a chipper “Good morning, boss.” Morin reminds her he’s no longer the boss, but the waitress disagrees. “He will always be the boss of this place,” she says before setting off to serve patrons already gambling at 10 a.m.
The casino, located on the Enoch Cree Nation reserve on the western outskirts of Edmonton, is the Canadian province of Alberta’s largest gambling establishment. Morin is Enoch Cree himself, one of Canada’s 1.67 million Indigenous people, and he spent 15 years running the place. He’s proud that it helps fund housing, day care, mental health services, and adult education for the 2,566 members of the Enoch Cree Nation.
In all the years Morin spent working at the casino, though, he couldn’t help but feel his people were getting a raw deal. Buried under the highway outside the casino’s front door runs the Trans Mountain pipeline, which generates revenue of almost $430 million (US$340 million) each year shipping Alberta crude to the Pacific coast. Although the route lies just beyond the reserve’s northern border, the highway and everything around it are part of the Enoch Cree’s traditional territory—land that they depended on for their way of life before European settlers came and that they still have some legal claim to under the treaty they eventually signed with Canada. In fact, that specific tract of land was part of the reserve until 1902, when the Enoch Cree say a local politician seized it illegally to sell to settlers (a version of events the government disputes). Yet because the Trans Mountain pipeline was built long before Canadian courts began recognizing Indigenous people’s claims to land outside their reserves, the only benefit the Enoch Cree have seen from the pipeline since oil began flowing through it in 1953 was some temporary jobs and rent money a few years ago when work began to expand it.
“All this land is Enoch,” Morin says later, as he drives his truck through areas near the reserve where the pipeline runs. “They gave us a few million bucks, which is nothing compared to the real value. We want to change that.”
Morin is now the chairman of Project Reconciliation, one of at least four Indigenous-led groups vying to take over ownership of Trans Mountain. Project Reconciliation estimates that if its bid is successful, the pipeline could bring about $400 million annually over the next 30 years to the dozens of Indigenous groups whose traditional territory it traverses. For the Enoch Cree that would mean about $14 million a year. Thanks to a volatile confluence of climate change, politics, and economic necessity, the Indigenous-led groups might have the opening they need. The pipeline’s proprietor is the government of Canada, and it’s looking to sell.
For the past decade, opposition from environmentalists, Indigenous groups, and some provincial governments has stymied virtually all Canadian pipeline construction, forcing billions of dollars of heavy oil produced in Alberta to be sold at a discount in the U.S. rather than being loaded on tankers bound for more profitable markets in Asia. Among the threatened projects was a plan to boost Trans Mountain’s capacity from 300,000 barrels a day to almost 900,000—a badly needed spark for Alberta’s economy. So in 2018 the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau bought the pipeline to make sure the expansion was completed. Now, with the project almost done, his government must decide what to do with it. A sale to Indigenous people could be the most politically expedient exit.
Canada is in the midst of a reckoning with its colonial past. Last year the bodies of more than 200 Indigenous children were found on the grounds of one of the 139 residential schools the government ran, often with Christian churches, until the late 1990s as part of a policy of forced assimilation. More gravesites have been discovered since. The legacy of racist policies—of which forced schooling and the family separation it entailed were only two—has left many Indigenous people mired in poverty, and Trans Mountain represents a chance to give some communities a cut of the resource wealth that’s made Canada rich. It could also help to neutralize what looks ever more like a political problem for Trudeau, as the cost of finishing the pipeline continues to soar, from an estimated $5.4 billion at the outset to $21.4 billion and counting. Last month, as the latest cost increase was revealed, the government announced it would release a plan to facilitate Indigenous people’s economic participation in the project later this year, with divestment kicking off after that.
Each of the prospective Indigenous buyers has its own plans for financing the purchase, running the pipeline, and, crucially, deciding who should share in the spoils. Appeasing these divergent interests in a way that addresses egregious historical wrongs could prove even harder than getting the pipeline finished. And that’s to say nothing of climate change, which poses a larger question as uncomfortable as it is inescapable: In a world transitioning to clean energy, is an oil pipeline even a sound long-term investment?
“I can really see this blowing up for the federal government,” says JoAnn Jamieson, a lawyer specializing in Indigenous law and an early advocate for First Nations ownership of energy projects. If the Trudeau government gets the sale right, it could set a precedent for sharing resource wealth with Indigenous people elsewhere in Canada and around the world. Get it wrong, Jamieson says, and “it’s just going to make things worse.”
Not everyone pushing for Indigenous ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline is Indigenous. Project Reconciliation’s co-founder and primary funder, Steve Mason, is a banker turned oilman from Toronto. He moved to Alberta in 1978 and has been wildcatting his way around the energy industry ever since. He spent much of the aughts chasing fortune in the gas fields of Tanzania and Mozambique. He now lunches at the Calgary Petroleum Club and can reliably expect the city’s top bankers and executives to return his calls.
Mason says Project Reconciliation originated with a 2016 phone call he got from Delbert Wapass, then chief of Thunderchild First Nation in neighboring Saskatchewan. A pipeline had spilled oil on Thunderchild land, and Wapass wanted Mason’s advice on what to do. The two men had previously teamed up to drill some oil wells on the reserve, and Mason considers the chief “a friend and brother.” He advised Wapass to give the pipeline operator the access it needed to clean up the spill—but not before it committed to making the nation one of its vendors. “That status can take months, it can take years,” Mason says. “By 6:30 in the morning, [Thunderchild] had vendor status.” A situation that could have forever poisoned the nation’s relationship to the oil industry instead made them part of it.
By that time the idea of Indigenous ownership in energy projects had been floating around for a while. But its value began to dawn on the industry only after environmental activists perceptively identified pipelines as the energy supply chain’s most vulnerable point and began campaigning against them, often in alliance with Indigenous groups. In 2015, Jamieson and another lawyer, William Laurin, presented a paper arguing that the best way to limit what the industry dryly terms “above-ground risks” was Indigenous ownership. As organized and well funded as climate activists can be, the Indigenous people living near energy infrastructure are far more dangerous from a legal point of view, particularly in Canada.
That’s because over the past two decades, Canadian courts have increasingly recognized that Indigenous people still have rights on the wider territories they inhabited before European settlement. Since 2004 a series of decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada have established that the government must consult with affected parties when something might interfere with those rights. This has given Indigenous groups broad standing to delay or stop projects. Jamieson and Laurin argued that the best way for companies to fulfill their legal duty and head off such opposition was to give Indigenous people equity stakes. That way they’d have a seat at the boardroom table, where they could help manage ecological risks and take a direct share of the profits.
The idea gained momentum across the back half of the 2010s, as the alliance between climate activists and Indigenous people came to look like an existential threat to oil sands operators in northern Alberta. Indigenous people were some of the most effective activists and spokespeople during the cross-border battle that stopped the Keystone XL pipeline from being built between Alberta and Nebraska. And the world took notice when people from the Sioux Nation and their allies protesting the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota were pepper-sprayed and attacked by dogs.
As for Trans Mountain, environmentalists and First Nations in British Columbia helped pressure that province’s left-leaning government into trying to block work on the pipeline’s expansion in its territory. This was the crisis that prompted Canada to buy Trans Mountain in 2018. By then, Alberta’s energy industry was in a panic. Lacking pipeline infrastructure, it was selling heavy crude at a record discount—less than US$30 a barrel, compared with the benchmark U.S. price of US$71. Oil sands projects were being shelved, unemployment was high, and office towers in downtown Calgary were emptying out.
At a lunch shortly after Canada bought Trans Mountain, an energy executive who’d been involved in the Thunderchild partnership asked Mason if he and Wapass could pull off something similar with the pipeline. The two started making calls, and soon they came up with a way for Indigenous groups to finance the acquisition of a 51 per cent stake. They began pitching their plan everywhere they could, from TV news programs to conference centers to First Nations council halls.
Although the idea of Indigenous ownership found plenty of support, some asked why a White guy and a chief based hundreds of miles east of Edmonton were best positioned to lead the way. Soon the field was crowded with rival bidders offering different visions for the purchase and stewardship of the pipeline. But with sensitive questions of historical wrongs and identity at stake, along with hundreds of millions of dollars, it wasn’t long before the energy industry’s solution to its political problem had become heatedly political itself.
For the past two years, the argument about the best way for Indigenous people to buy and run Trans Mountain has played out in the market. Different bidders have emerged to champion different ideas. One, the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group, has advocated a relatively narrow ownership syndicate based on proximity to the pipeline’s route, arguing that only those closest should benefit because their lands are most at risk from spills. It’s agreed to share Trans Mountain 50-50 with an operating partner, Pembina Pipeline Corp.
Another bidder, Nesika Services, has set itself up as a nonprofit so it can maximize distributions to Indigenous owners, who it says should include all 129 groups the federal government is currently consulting. Nesika is looking to arrange a purchase of the entire pipeline on behalf of Indigenous communities, arguing that they’re perfectly capable of running the show. “We don’t know everything, but we know how to create a team. We know how to hire professionals,” says Tony Alexis, Nesika’s co-founder and the chief of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, which already has an energy-services company that it’s built into a reliable revenue source. John Jurrius, the Texan chief executive officer of Indigena Capital, a Calgary-based private equity firm seeking to arrange financing for Trans Mountain bids, says the money for full Indigenous ownership is there, because investors are hungry to back anything that advances social justice.
Yet another bidder, Natural Law Enterprises, is basing its pitch on traditional Indigenous models of consensus-driven decision-making. “We’d like everybody to have a say. We don’t just develop by ourselves,” says Travis Meguinis, CEO of Natural Law. “We are doing things together, and collectively, not just unilaterally.”
The growing competition has caused Project Reconciliation to adjust its approach, raising its target stake to 100 per cent and replacing Wapass with Morin as chairman to emphasize local stakeholders. Morin says he agreed to join the group, and the Enoch Cree chose to support it, because it had the most detailed proposal for coming up with the billions of dollars needed to buy the pipeline. Canada’s Indigenous people get much of their revenue from the federal government. And they can’t borrow large sums from the bond market as municipal governments do because they have virtually no collateral—their reserves are held in trust by the federal government, and their direct tax revenue is paltry.
The Enoch Cree got around this for the casino by promising lenders a share of their profits. Project Reconciliation is planning to do more or less the same thing. Energy companies signed contracts for Trans Mountain’s expanded capacity before the first shovel hit the ground, and Project Reconciliation’s plan involves borrowing against the projected revenue. After paying interest, some of the principal, and the operating costs, they would distribute the remaining money each year to the owners. And if there’s a problem paying off the debt down the line, the lenders would have a claim only to the pipeline, not to the owners’ other assets, so Indigenous people would be no worse off than before.
None of the other groups have been so precise about their plans, but assuming Canada isn’t willing to backstop the debt or hand the pipeline over for free, any serious bidder will probably have to follow a similar financing model. For all the talk of historical rights, governance, and environmental protection, the winner will probably be whoever can come up with the money. Only last month, the Trudeau government reiterated that it expects to recoup its investment and potentially to make a return when it divests. How profitable the pipeline is after that depends on how long fossil fuels remain a viable business. Trans Mountain’s opponents are working to close that window as fast as they can.
Kanahus Manuel lives in a one-room cabin in a snowy valley in the interior of British Columbia. Her home, like the five around it, sits on a trailer so it can be towed and set down wherever crews are working on the Trans Mountain expansion. Manuel is a member of the Secwepemc (“sekh-WEP-emkh”) people, whose traditional territory lies in British Columbia’s interior, directly on the pipeline’s route. The mobile cabins were conceived to remind the project’s supporters, including the elected chiefs and councils of several Secwepemc bands, that not all of the area’s first inhabitants have consented to the pipeline traversing their land.
Manuel and her fellow activists aren’t limiting themselves to symbolic actions. With legal routes to halting the pipeline expansion exhausted, they’ve begun pressure campaigns against the insurance companies needed to underwrite Trans Mountain’s operations. One major insurer, Chubb Ltd., has said it will no longer cover oil sands projects, and Zurich Insurance Group AG has dropped coverage of the pipeline. In 2021 its operator, Trans Mountain Corp., acknowledged seeing “significantly higher cost” after the pool of potential insurers shrank.
The pipeline’s overall financial picture is also already less rosy than it once was. In February, as the latest cost overrun was disclosed, the federal government said it wouldn’t spend any more public money on the expansion, meaning Trans Mountain Corp. would have to make up the shortfall with borrowing. The operator has said that could mean its customers will bear as much as 25 per cent of the cost increase.
Nevertheless, two of the pipeline’s major clients, Suncor Energy Inc. and Cenovus Energy Inc., have issued statements saying they remain committed, and the government of Canada continues to stand behind the project’s long-term viability. The basic argument is that even as the world transitions to renewable energy sources, it will need to keep burning oil for the foreseeable future. The government’s energy regulator predicts that demand for Canadian oil won’t peak until 2032, when it will hit 5.8 million barrels a day. By 2050 the figure will still be 4.8 million barrels a day. That oil will need to get to market somehow, and if somebody’s going to make money from it, the argument goes, it might as well be Indigenous people.
Even so, the ballooning costs have sparked skepticism. Merle Alexander, a lawyer in Vancouver who’s represented Indigenous groups on both sides of the Trans Mountain fight, says he’s concerned about what will happen if oil demand disappears faster than expected, right after Indigenous people have borrowed heavily to take control of the pipeline. “Personally, I’m not convinced of the economic merits of the investment,” says Alexander, who’s the hereditary chief of the Kitasoo Xai’xai (kit-AH-soo hai-hai) Nation on BC’s central coast. “It’s almost guaranteed it will have a diminishing return, the only question is on what timeline.”
Manuel voices similar concerns about Canada offloading a liability onto Indigenous people. She also says she worries about the pipeline’s role in climate change and the ecological dangers of spills. But when she’s asked on a video call to sum up the main reason she opposes even an Indigenous-owned Trans Mountain pipeline, she needs only three words: “It’s our land.”
A map of the Secwepemc traditional territory is hanging behind Manuel on a wall in her little cabin. For her, Trans Mountain’s progress through that territory is a violation of her nation’s sovereignty. She says the elected band chiefs and councils who support it have no legitimacy because they derive their authority from the laws of Canada, a colonial government her people, like other First Nations in British Columbia, never signed a treaty with. If Canada wants consent for Trans Mountain that Manuel views as meaningful, it would have to come out of her people’s traditional forms of consensus-driven governance, she says. Until that happens, she doesn’t care who owns it.
“It doesn’t matter if brown businessmen purchase this pipeline, we’ll continue to fight tooth and nail by any means necessary to stop it,” Manuel says. “Those brown faces are still violating our rights.”