As blockades continue to pop up across Canada, disrupting rail and road traffic to protest against the Coastal GasLink pipeline through Wet'suwet'en territory, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney told a conference on Indigenous participation in large projects Wednesday that First Nations are key partners in pushing energy projects forward.
In what has become a common refrain for Kenney, he said "green left militants" are hurting Indigenous communities by removing any potential for economic growth in their territories.
"These people in Toronto and Vancouver who say shut it all down and leave it in the ground, where is their concern?" he said.
Kenney emphasized the Alberta government's commitment to supporting Indigenous communities financially through its Indigenous Opportunities Corporation, which offers a $1 billion backstop to allow communities to invest in projects.
He said that represented the single biggest fiscal commitment of his government in an economic downturn.
"There's been a change. There's been a coming together. That is the spirit of reconciliation, and I have never once been criticized by Albertans for making that choice," he said.
"We did that because we know that for many of your nations, it is very difficult to obtain credit and equity and financing. The banks are not easily accessible for borrowing, because the anachronistic Indian Act makes it all but impossible for bands to use land or assets for collateral."
Litigation fund for Indigenous communities
Kenney also announced the first recipients of the Indigenous litigation fund, meant to finance court challenges for groups that support resource development, which he says is needed to offset funding of opposition groups.
The Woodland Cree First Nation will receive $187,688 to join the province's challenge to the contentious Bill C-69, which outlines new rules for resource projects in Canada.
"We really see this as creating uncertainty and vulnerability for Alberta, our nation, but also the country," said Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom of the Woodland Cree.
He said his First Nation wants to be involved in development on their land because they're the ones left behind when companies leave.
"We don't want our children just living in poverty and then our grandchildren. We want our children to go to the universities," said Laboucan-Avirom.
Chief Sharleen Gale, of the Fort Nelson First Nation in British Columbia, had another way of putting it.
"It's no longer where you just come to a community and drop off a box of doughnuts [and] tell them what you're going to be doing," she said.
"Nations are building up their capacity to be able to deal with these issues a little bit stronger by incorporating their own Indigenous values on how these projects should be laid out on the land and how they want to be involved economically."
That view was shared by Stephen Buffalo, the president and CEO of the Indian Resource Council, which advocates for greater control over natural resources for Indigenous communities.
"It's my view that no one in Canada should live in poverty with the resources that we have here in Canada," he said.
Buffalo says they agree with a lot of environmental concerns, but have to find a balance with economic development.
Both Laboucan-Avirom and Buffalo said they can't speak for other nations like the Wet'suwet'en and what's best for them.
"Well, it's just really an assertion of our jurisdiction," said Buffalo when asked about the protest and blockades.
"And, you know, we have to respect the fact that they still follow our hereditary clan system in B.C., and we have to leave it up to them to solve those issues. Until then, I'm hoping the rest of the Canadian First Nations can respect that and leave it with them to deal with it, because as Canada we still need to move together."
Kenney's speech at the Indigenous Participation in Major Projects conference in Calgary came one day after a throne speech in the Alberta legislature that doubled down on the province's commitment to oil and gas development, with pledges to crack down on those who disrupt "critical infrastructure."
Earlier in the day, he said the government may invest directly in energy projects.
Kenney's speech was supposed to be followed by a panel discussion that featured the chief executive officer of Coastal GasLink, the company squarely in the centre of the national storm, but David Pfeiffer did not show up.