Indigenous groups from across western Canada say they are nearly ready to put forward an offer to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
The multi-billion-dollar project is currently awaiting federal approval, but as Ottawa finishes its final round a consultations, at least two coalitions, representing bands from across BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, have been raising capital and organizing a potential bid.
“Invitations have gone out to all Indigenous communities — over 300 in British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan,” said Harrie Vredenberg, a board member with Project Reconciliation, a company that has set up shop in downtown Calgary in order to help negotiate and facilitate a 51 per cent equity stake purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project.
Delbert Wapass, the former chief of the Saskatchewan, Thunderchild First Nation, serves as Project Reconciliation’s executive Chairman. Any Indigenous group that wishes to participate in the purchase bid is welcome, he said, and would not be required to invest any money of their own.
“What we’re proposing is zero risk for First Nations,” Wapass said. “We’re not asking them to invest anything other than their time to look at what’s being proposed.”
Vredenberg says the group has been in talks with several Canadian and international banks about raising the billions of dollars needed to purchase the equity stake. It’s a good investment, says University of Saskatchewan professor, Ken Coates, but only if the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion (TMX) project moves ahead.
“Banks are gong to come forward with the money when they know it’s a viable project — when they know it’s actually going to be built,” said Coates.
WATCH: (May 5) The Indigenous divide over the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project
This isn’t the first time First Nations groups have expressed interest in purchasing the pipeline, but Coates believes this is the first time a plan like this one could succeed.
“Ottawa’s got a real dilemma,” Coates said. “They’ve got a pipeline they didn’t want to buy, that quite frankly parts of their government does not want to build.
“They want nothing more than to have it to pass it on to somebody who could actually build it and do it in a way that is environmentally sound and socially progressive.”
The federal government has until June 18 to wrap up consultations with Indigenous groups before deciding whether to proceed with a plan to twin the pipeline between Edmonton and Burnaby, B.C.
Federal Finance Minister Bill Morneau has said his government may be open to selling Indigenous groups an equity stake of TMX, but that any discussions would have to wait until after the project is approved.
If that happens, Project Reconciliation may have competition from another Indigenous group. Chief Michael LeBourdais of the Whispering Pines First Nation, north of Kamloops, B.C., chairs the Western Indigenous Pipeline group, a coalition of BC bands who live along the TMX route.
“We’ve always wanted equity in this pipeline to give us revenue and oversight, so that’s what we’re pursuing,” LeBourdais said. “We want that revenue and most of all we want that environmental oversight.”
LeBourdais says ownership would help lift communities like his out of poverty, but not everyone agrees. The Union of BC Indian Chiefs recently published an open letter to First Nations leaders warning them against getting involved with any plan to purchase.
“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 April 25, 2019 letter signed by Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and Kukpi7 Judy Wilson reads.
Back in Calgary, Wapass says he respects the opinions of Chiefs Phillip and Wilson, but he also disagrees.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Wapass said. “There is a huge upside and many a time in the past, we’ve squandered these opportunities.”