Some 250 miles to the northeast, Michael LeBourdais was also following the government’s decision. But not because he opposes the pipeline. He wants to buy it.
LeBourdais, chief of the Whispering Pines/Clinton Indian Band near Kamloops, B.C., leads the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group, one of several indigenous-led coalitions vying for a stake in the project. The groups say revenue from the pipeline, which carries crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the British Columbia coast, could alleviate poverty in their communities, and ownership would give them a voice in decisions about environmental protections.
“We’ve been shut out of the economy since Canada was created,” LeBourdais said.
He wants to buy a stake of at least 51 percent in the project and split the spoils with the indigenous groups directly along the pipeline route. By some estimates, the expanded pipeline, used at full capacity, could generate more than $1 billion in annual revenue for its owners.
Indigenous ownership could be “a game-changer,” said Ken Coates, a professor of public policy at the University of Saskatchewan.
Indigenous groups hold full or partial stakes in oil storage tanks and hydroelectric dams. But a controlling stake in a project the size of Trans Mountain, Coates said, would be unprecedented.
“This is actually the first time in Canadian history that they have the chance to participate in a major way and in an ongoing way in the kind of prosperity that Canadians take for granted,” he said.
Canada in recent years has struggled to complete major energy projects such as pipelines, in part because they tend to draw opposition from indigenous groups.
The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion is no different: It has touched off an interprovincial feud, exacerbated the ongoing antagonism between the energy sector and environmentalists, and divided indigenous groups.
For Trudeau, it has posed a major headache ahead of a tough federal election in October. The Liberal leader has promised to fight climate change, but fossil fuel extraction remains a pillar of the Canadian economy.
Canada is the world’s sixth largest energy producer and its fifth largest net exporter, according to its natural resources agency. The energy industry generated $174 billion in 2018, or 11.1 percent of nominal gross domestic product; it employed 269,000 people directly and supported more than 550,500 indirectly. (The numbers include all energy sources, not just fossil fuels.)
Trudeau initially approved the pipeline expansion in 2016, but a federal appeals court soon annulled the decision, saying the government had failed to properly consult with indigenous people or consider the impact of increased tanker traffic on Pacific waters.
With the expansion in legal and political limbo, the Trudeau government bought the pipeline from Texas-based Kinder Morgan in 2018 for $3.4 billion. It intends to auction it back to the private sector once it has been “de-risked.”
“We will divest the Trans Mountain entities to a new owner or owners in a manner and at a time that protects the public interest, including the government’s investment,” said Pierre-Olivier Herbert, a Finance Ministry spokesman.
The prime minister approved the project again in June, saying it was crucial for alleviating a pipeline shortage that has slowed the flow of Alberta crude to market. That kicked off a fresh round of protests and legal challenges.
Even among indigenous groups, the project has opened divisions — between pro- and anti-pipeline groups, but also between the indigenous-led coalitions clamoring for a stake in the project.
“We have left Indians and right Indians,” LeBourdais said. “It’s like politics anywhere.”
LeBourdais wanted to buy a stake in the project long before Trudeau approved it in 2016.
“[Government officials] were saying, ‘Woah, woah, slow down.’ ” he said. “I said, ‘No, no, this is a race.’
“Look what happened. Now we have all these other pretenders coming up.”
Delbert Wapass, executive chairman and founder of the rival Project Reconciliation group, said the opportunity is “almost too good to be true” — so much so that his group submitted a preliminary proposal to the federal government, which is not yet accepting bids, earlier this summer.
“If you’re no longer stuck managing poverty, now you’ve moved the needle where you’re starting to manage wealth,” said Wapass, the former chief of Saskatchewan’s Thunderchild First Nation.
His group wants to buy a 51 percent stake in the existing pipeline and the expansion project, a $5.2 billion acquisition that would be financed by one of Canada’s big banks, with the debt backed by oil-shipping contracts.
About 20 percent of the proceeds from the pipeline would be disbursed to the some 340 indigenous groups in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia who can join the project, he said; those groups closer to the pipeline route would get larger cuts.
The rest would go into an indigenous sovereign wealth fund.
LeBourdais opposes the Project Reconciliation bid. He said he doesn’t think it should be open to groups in Saskatchewan or those not directly along the pipeline’s route because “they have nothing to risk.”
Tony Alexis, the co-chair of the Iron Coalition, another group with its sights on the pipeline, said indigenous ownership could serve as a model for future projects. But he cautioned against “taking a step too quickly.”
His sense from conversations with federal officials is that they want all of the indigenous-led coalitions to come together and submit a single bid, so they don’t have to choose among several indigenous-led proposals.
Trudeau said in July the government is “very interested in seeing indigenous partnership and indigenous ownership, potentially, of this pipeline” but is proceeding in a “measured way.”
Herbert said the finance ministry has launched a “formal engagement process” to “actively seek input from indigenous groups on ways that they could benefit.”
“It is important that indigenous communities have an opportunity for meaningful economic participation while we hold to our commitment of investing in a way that benefits all Canadians, and that operates the project on a commercial basis,” he said.
A federal official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations confirmed that the government has received “documentation” from Wapass’s group.
“Project Reconciliation is obviously very organized and has built some type of capacity,” the official said. “But we don’t think that because they have built that capacity, the resources necessary to have a very detailed plan or the financial backing that they should have priority over groups that are maybe less organized.”
The official said it was too soon to say when the bidding process would open.
George-Wilson said indigenous ownership of the pipeline makes the project no more palatable.
“We have looked closely at the economics of the project and in reality, in our view, there’s a lot of risk and uncertainty facing whomever owns it,” she said.
The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs expressed similar concerns before Trudeau approved the project.
“There are good reasons why Kinder Morgan chose to walk away from this project and you should carefully consider them before investing your Nation’s money,” the chiefs wrote in an open letter to other chiefs in April.
“I respect their position,” he said. “But let’s be honest. I don’t see them driving Teslas.”
A federal appeals court said this month it would hear six challenges to the pipeline, including George-Wilson’s. She argues that the government still hasn’t adequately consulted with indigenous groups.
Coates said the Trudeau government would be “naive” to think indigenous ownership would reduce opposition to the project or stave off criticism from environmentalists in an election year.
He called the situation “ironic.”
“If we’re going to end up with a pipeline,” he said, “it could be because First Nations stepped forward.”