Want richer First Nations? Say ‘yes’ to pipelines

Mark Milke and Lennie Kaplan,
Courtesy of Troy Media.

It’s no geographic secret that many First Nations reserves are far from urban centres and the economic opportunities that cities provide. Given that 380,000 Indigenous Canadians live on reserve, according to the 2016 census, and with concerns about economic conditions on many reserves, one of this era’s most pressing policy problems is how to provide economic opportunity to First Nations that are far from urban centres.

One answer: Allow the natural resource economy on or near First Nations.

A perfect example is underway in British Columbia, with the construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. This is the 670-km project that, when complete, will transport natural gas from Chetwynd in northeast B.C. to Kitimat on the coast, where it will be processed into liquefied natural gas [LNG] and exported mainly to Asia.

The pipeline project is owned by a consortium that includes TC Energy, KKR and Alberta Investment Management Corp. The consortium has also offered a 10 per cent ownership stake in the $6.6-billion project to the 20 First Nations living along the route with which the project partners signed benefit agreements.

At its peak, construction of Coastal GasLink will employ 2,500 people, including many members of local First Nations. Returns from the 10 per cent ownership stake will outlast the immediate benefits of the construction jobs, but both matter. To understand why, consider some 2016 census data on how the 20 First Nations are faring vis-a-vis other British Columbians.

Statistics aren’t available for all First Nations along the pipeline route, but for the 15 for which data are available, 14 have employment rates – the percentage of their working-age populations that are employed – lower than British Columbia as a whole. Rates range from just 23 per cent at the Cheslatta Carrier First Nation to 53 per cent at West Moberly.

By comparison, the employment rate is 60 per cent for all British Columbians and 58 per cent for those who self-identified as off-reserve Indigenous in the 2016 census. [Only one First Nation along the pipeline route, McLeod Lake, has an employment rate of 77 per cent, which beats everyone.]

There’s no easy way to spur economic opportunity for every remote reserve – not all have nearby oil and natural gas extraction or pipeline possibilities. Still – be it pipelines, ongoing oil and gas development, other resource projects including mining and forestry, or other rural economic drivers such as agriculture – all development has the potential to provide own-source tax revenues, offer direct work and boost employment incomes for those living on First Nations.

All such economic activity, existing and potential, requires little from governments. It simply requires politicians and others to allow such industries to flourish.

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