While First Nations communities have been at the forefront of resistance to fossil fuels, some are being lured by the promise of riches from oil and gas development.
Historically, the French and the British exploited native people to pursue their colonial interests in the New World. The French were allied with the Algonquin and the Huron while the British forged alliances with the Mohawk and the Iroquois. The consequences of the European invasion have been devastating for Indigenous people.
Today a new form of colonialism is unfolding in central and western Canada and it revolves around front-line energy issues. Supporters of the oil and gas industry want to enlist the support of native communities to legitimize their dirty energy interests.
Indigenous people are more commonly associated with clean energy as they account for 20 percent of Canada’s renewables. Although many First nations communities are deeply invested in clean power, some Indigenous leaders are forging a movement that would take them in the opposite direction. A leader of the so called Iron Coalition is urging First Nations and Métis in Alberta to join him in signing an exclusivity agreement as part of an effort to secure ownership of the Trans Mountain pipeline. Project Reconciliation is a similar organization that is seeking support for fossil fuels from First Nations communities in provinces from Saskatchewan to BC.
Indigenous people have been at the forefront of efforts to resist fossil fuel pipelines, but this may change if Chief Tony Alexis gets his way. Alexis is the co-leader of a group composed of dozens of Indigenous groups who are both pro-pipeline and pro-fossil fuels. They welcome oil and gas development on native lands.
Many Indigenous men and women work in the oil-and-gas sector and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has encouraged First Nations ownership. We are seeing more interest in partnership deals with fossil fuel companies. Indigenous people who support fossil fuels make light of the dangers pipelines pose to water and climate.
First Nations communities like the Fisher River Cree Nation are investing their futures in green energy. They recently built a new utility scale solar farm in Manitoba. This one megawatt facility is the biggest solar farm in the province. It not only generates revenue for the community, it also serves as an example to other Native communities. The seven acre farm has almost 3,000 panels and was built entirely by Indigenous employees. The solar array was built as part of a partnership agreement with the W Dusk Energy Group Inc., an Indigenous-owned clean energy firm. The project is providing jobs and teaching skills and it is expected to pay for itself in less than a decade.
Power is central to many issues. As explained in a David Suzuki article, “Energy is inextricably linked to a range of community issues, from health to housing.” At a recent four day SevenGen gathering in Calgary, 200 young Indigenous leaders learned about the opportunities in Canada’s energy transition. At this conference those in attendance talked about self reliance and the shift to renewable energy and efficiency projects.
While some claim that outside groups use Indigenous people to resist fossil fuel expansion. Others say that First Nations
communities are being lured by petro-dollars and abandoning their role as protectors.
In past centuries First Nations were cruelly exploited and savagely murdered by colonial powers. In fact the history of the Americas is stained by unconscionable efforts to assimilate, subjugate and destroy Indigenous people.
Whether they are being used to kill dirty energy or to make dirty energy projects more acceptable there is a lingering connotation of colonial abuse. However, there is an important distinction. Dirty energy is at odds with traditional values and the self-sufficiency that renewable energy affords can be seen as a move towards decolonization. In this sense renewables are consistent with greater autonomy and First Nations’ values.