Indigenous peoples faced with a choice of development or poverty

Robert Merasty

If First Nations are to have a chance at seeing real self-determination, equity deals in natural resource development must be part of the conversation. Having ownership of the projects taking place on our land not only gives us own-source revenue but also gives us the ability to have a seat at the table and be part of the conversation with industry.

On September 22, Hydro One announced a new equity partnership with First Nation leaders across Ontario. This announcement offers our people in Ontario a 50 per cent equity stake in all future large-scale capital transmission line projects exceeding $100 million in value.

This agreement, signed with eight First Nations represented by the Gwayakocchigewin Limited Partnership (GLP) for the Waasigan Transmission Line project, shows that the appetite for industry to work with First Nations is there. In total, nine First Nations will have the opportunity to invest in a 50 per cent stake in the Waasigan Transmission Line project, putting those Nations that invest in a financially independent position.

This partnership is a step in the right direction. As Indigenous people, we sometimes see development and projects take place without receiving any benefits. Industry working with First Nations is a step forward in reconciliation.

This is not the first time an equity agreement has happened between industry and First Nations. In March this year, Coastal Gaslink signed a 10 per cent equity option with First Nations along the pipeline corridor.

Chief Justin Napoleon of Saulteau First Nations said of that agreement: “We want to be partners; we want to be involved in the lifecycle of the project from ground-breaking to reclamation. Having the option to get involved in equity opens up the opportunity to have long-term economic benefit from a project that will be there for years.”

Having this long-term economic benefit provides opportunities for our First Nations that we could not have considered 10 years ago.

Our communities can no longer rely on the federal government to provide Indigenous with quality and culturally-centred education and health care services. Often at times, federal funding agreements come with strings attached, forcing First Nations to spend more on administration and professional services. Generating our own revenue with ownership in projects gives us control and allows us to spend our revenue how we see fit. That is what real self-determination looks like.

Additionally, equity ownership in projects allows us to have control of the projects on our land, allowing our people to determine the trajectory of a project by giving us a seat at the table with industry. Not only will First Nations be partners in the project we will also be environmental regulators.

Our people know best when it comes to taking care of the land. What the Creator has provided us is sacred to our people and our culture. It is essential for our people that when we develop our natural resources, we do so responsibly and ensure the project meets our high environmental standards. We are keepers of the land, and we have a responsibility to ensure that the projects we engage in are reliable and sustainable.

This equity deal with Hydro One is just the beginning for our First Nations in Ontario. There will be more opportunities like this as long as the government gets out of the way and lets First Nations and industry work together.

However, some Nations have a hard time raising the capital to invest in projects. Having a National Indigenous Guaranteed Loan Program will help Nations raise the capital necessary to invest in projects taking place on their land.

If we want to see First Nations truly thrive and experience genuine self-determination, we must allow for equity agreements to happen and invest in tools that facilitate growth and access to capital. Early last year, the Indigenous Resource Network announced its ‘ownership changes everything’ campaign. This campaign advocated for a National Indigenous Guaranteed Loan Program, a tool the government can implement right now to offer more Nations access to capital to invest in resource development. A guaranteed loan program can be a very helpful tool for Nations as they raise the capital necessary to invest in projects.

Our people are faced with a choice between development and poverty. We are looking for solutions for our people, and this one is staring us in the face. We hope other Canadians and Indigenous can come together to support Indigenous ownership in these projects. We believe it is a real win-win for industry and our Indigenous communities.

Robert Merasty has been the executive director for the Indigenous Resource Network since February 2022. He served as Chief of his home community of Flying Dust Cree Nation and also held the political office as Second Vice Chief for the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations for the 74 First Nations of Saskatchewan. A former board member of SaskPower’s First Nations Power Authority and Saskatchewan’s Corporate Procurement Committee, he has also served in a variety of business and economic development roles at the Saskatchewan Research Council, the Crown Investments Corporation of Saskatchewan, and the FSIN Corporate Circle.