‘Economic reconciliation’ is a false promise for Indigenous peoples

Janelle Lapointe
David Eby, Pierre Poilievre

Jun. 28, 2024

The rise of “natural gas” as a form of reconciliation is a strategy of the fossil fuel industry to maintain their grip on our energy systems and profit off Indigenous lands.

Sitting alongside Indigenous leaders with a Canadian flag draped behind him, Pierre Poilievre began his announcement. 

“For hundreds of years, First Nations have suffered under a broken system that gives power over their lives to a far away government in Ottawa that decides for them,” he said.

His speech then shifted, not to the return of lands or the recognition of sovereignty, but to the mechanics of financial transactions and the promise of so-called economic reconciliation through resource extraction projects.

“We need to get the Ottawa gatekeepers out of the way, put First Nations in control of their money, and let them bring home the benefits that are dually theirs,” Poilievre continued, speaking at an event in Vancouver last year.

“These resource projects offer incredible promise, and we see them right across the country, where First Nations have been allowed to partner with resource companies, incredible benefits are unfolding.”

Poilievre and so many other political leaders, in and out of government, have been actively promoting the concept of “economic reconciliation” in an effort to win over Indigenous leaders. 

The term has become a buzzword, touted by political figures and resource industries, for a pathway towards reconciliation through economic opportunities afforded by resource extraction projects. 

This notion, while appealing on the surface, masks a deeper perpetuation of exploitative practices on Indigenous lands under the guise of progress and mutual benefit.  

The idea behind this term is for Indigenous communities to regain control of their economies, aiming for self-sufficiency, sustainability, and sovereignty. Yet the relentless drive for fossil fuel development in Canada threatens to water down the notion to mean merely assimilating into the colonial, extraction-centric economic framework.

As a Dakelh youth from Stella, a small reserve in northern British Columbia, I’ve observed first-hand the ephemeral nature of economic booms tied to resource extraction. 

Our communities have become a testament to the resilience required in the face of relentless extraction. With each promise of prosperity and partnership, I weigh the true cost to our people and our land.

Intentionally imposed poverty

Throughout Canada’s history, land dispossession has been central to building its economy. Indigenous lands, rich with natural resources, were systematically taken to fuel development and economic growth. 

This process, driven by capitalist corporate greed and a colonial mindset that viewed land solely as exploitable resources, has resulted in profound and intentional systemic poverty among Indigenous communities. It has not made Indigenous communities stronger, healthier, or more prosperous. 

The Yellowhead Institute’s groundbreaking 2021 Cash Back report sheds light on this devastating reality. It reveals how Indigenous communities have been robbed of their lands, resources and autonomy, while corporations have profited immensely.  

Indigenous peoples have been coerced, deceived, and outright forced to surrender their territories, resulting in the loss of their traditional livelihoods and connection to the land. 

To claim that the same industries and colonial governments perpetuating this gross power imbalance are creating “economic reconciliation” is an insult to the struggles and aspirations of Indigenous peoples. It implies that a mere financial transaction can erase the deep scars inflicted upon our communities and restore justice. 

The inherent value and interconnectedness of Indigenous cultures and territories have been disregarded, reducing them to mere commodities for exploitation. 

First with the fur trade, then with trees, salmon,and now fossil fuels—extractive industries continue to perpetuate a cycle of poverty, social inequality, and dependency. 

The deceit behind BC’s LNG boom

It is said that there is no reconciliation without truth, and an undeniable truth is that the fossil fuel industry peddles lies. 

For decades, the fossil fuel industry has denied the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change, pouring millions into disinformation campaigns to sow doubt and protect their profits. Now, faced with mounting pressure to transition away from carbon-intensive fuels, they have shifted their tactics. 

They have traded climate denial for a glossy marketing campaign that presents “natural gas” as a cleaner, more sustainable alternative—winning over select Indigenous communities in the process. 

In British Columbia, the newest proponent of this cycle is the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, which claim to advance “economic reconciliation,” and are backed by politicians across the political spectrum. 

Resource industries are finally seeking Indigenous partnership, in an attempt to absolve themselves of their responsibility for the ongoing marginalisation and impoverishment of Indigenous communities. 

LNG Canada, for example, touts its job creation, training programs, revenue streams, and partnerships aimed at preserving cultural heritage and promoting community services. 

This is coming to Nations at a time where profits are being threatened by a fossil-fuel driven climate crisis, such as this year’s dire drought conditions, when we do not have enough hydroelectricity to power the projects on the table, and when global market demand is declining. 

My mother refers to this as “handing us the cookie jar when there’s only crumbs left.” 

Steel pipe for the LNG Coastal GasLink pipeline on Wet’suwet’en territory in an area previously untouched by industrial development. Photo: Michael Toledano.

At the same time, the line between corporate interests and political decision-making is blurred when it comes to resource extraction. 

In an exposé this week, The Narwhal revealed how a TransCanada Energy executive (and former staffer in ex-Premier John Horgan’s government) boasted about writing “entire briefing notes for ministers and premiers and prime ministers,” written on government letterhead, to influence B.C.’s policies LNG projects.

The staffer, who resigned before The Narwhal’s article was published, reportedly took credit for silencing opposition and shifting Premier David Eby’s views on some LNG projects, after Eby had previously said “we cannot continue to subsidize fossil fuels and expect clean energy to manifest somehow.” 

The BC NDP has recently greenlit the Cedar LNG project, while Woodfibre LNG and LNG Canada are already under construction and the Ksi Lisims and Tilbury LNG are under review. Collectively, these projects could lead to nearly 30 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually. 

The construction of these projects proceed without the consent of all impacted First Nations, contrary to the province’s own Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act. 

The NDP’s opposition, the BC United, and the BC Conservatives promise to “go all in on LNG,” while the BC Green Party stands alone in opposing LNG expansion projects. 

‘Justice will not be granted by politicians or industry’

Deceptive ad campaigns greenwash the climate impacts of LNG projects. But let’s be clear: natural gas is no climate solution. From extraction to combustion, fracking of so-called “natural” gas is a water-intensive process that leaks methane—a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than CO2—into the atmosphere. 

The excessive use of water and clean electricity poses a threat to agriculture, fishing, salmon habitat, and the ability to effectively fight forest fires, all of which are costly issues for the same communities they are claiming to benefit.

The industry claims to lower global emissions, by displacing coal but in reality, LNG is more likely to compete with renewable and nuclear energy than replace coal in its target markets. The world’s leading climate scientists and energy market experts all agree it is critical that no more fossil fuel projects, including LNG, are built if we want a livable planet. 

The rise of “natural gas” as a climate solution and contributor to reconciliation is nothing more than a cunning strategy employed by this industry to maintain their grip on our energy systems and profit off Indigenous lands. In a vacuum of options, First Nations are buying into an industry that isn’t ecologically or economically viable.

Unfortunately, this warped vision of climate justice and reconciliation is not merely the fault of Poilievre and the Federal Conservatives. Trudeau’s Liberal government has failed to provide a true, compelling vision for climate justice and after nine years in power, only 13 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action have been implemented. 

The Canadian climate movement at-large opposes the expansion of fossil fuel development, but has historically failed to move toward right, reciprocal relationships with Indigenous nations. 

This has resulted in the condemnation of Indigenous Nations who support development, without nuance, compassion, or an understanding of the colonial history of the country, the resource industry, and even the failings of the environmental movement. 

True reconciliation and economic justice require a fundamental shift in power dynamics and an acknowledgment that corporations have profited unjustly from the land and resources that rightfully belong to Indigenous Nations. 

It requires us all to fight for the government to fulfil its legal and moral obligations to Indigenous Nations, and ensure fair compensation for past and ongoing resource extraction.

When the day comes for restitution and justice, it will not be granted by politicians or industry. It will be hard won by a movement of everyday people. People who are tired of half-measures and nice words. People who see the fight for climate justice as inextricably connected with the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples. 

Justice will look like enacting the economies, laws, culture, language, and governance structures of Indigenous Nations—systems that have allowed them to be the only people to survive sustainably on these lands—instead of forcing them to assimilate into extractive capitalism.

Everything else is a distraction.