Indigenous leadership in an era of energy transformation

Why Indigenous oil and gas has a role to play in Canada’s energy future.

Melissa Mbarki, Chris Sankey and Cody Ciona discuss our energy future at IPSS 2022 (PHOTO BY DARRYL DYCK FOR IPSS).

Chris Sankey believes now is the time for Indigenous communities to play a key role in the oil and gas sector.

Sankey, Lax Kw’alaams Band member and CEO of Blackfish Enterprises, was in conversation with Melissa Mbarki of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and Cody Ciona of the Canadain Energy Center during the Resource Works supported 2022 Indigenous Partnerships Success Showcase (IPSS) session called Indigenous Leadership in an Era of Energy Transformation.

Sankey says he is not blind to the fact that wind farms and solar are going to play an intricate role into our electrical grid at some point. “But that in itself is not going to be enough when we’re talking about a transition.

“The field I’m so privileged to work in, and work with some of the brightest minds both on the sustainable development side and the energy sector side, is incredible. Every day these individuals are thinking about ways to reduce emissions. And the biggest that keeps coming up is the opportunity for Indigenous people and communities to lead these mega projects.”

Sankey, who helped negotiate the past $36-billion Pacific Northwest LNG agreement in northern BC, says that time is of the essence.

“There’s this window of opportunity for Indigenous communities to really pave the way to work with industry to look at innovation and technology and how better can we reduce our emissions and our carbon footprint.”

Melissa Mbarki of the Muskowekwan First Nation and currently a policy analyst and outreach coordinator with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute agrees. “I think going forward with industry, if we could start building partnerships with operators —oil and gas, mining, pipelines— if we start building these relationships with First Nations’ communities, it’ll be a win-win for all.”

She adds, however: “I feel like in the last five or so years with the constraints that we’ve had and the acts that were enacted, it really set us back. And it really put us in a place where we couldn’t go forward with projects like this.

“So going forward, one of the things that I really do is I advocate for the industry because I tell them it was something that took me out of poverty. It was something that gave me a rewarding career and it was something that really let me work with my community and hundreds of communities across Canada.”

It was through work in the natural resource sector that Mbarki was able to break free from the cycle of poverty endemic in her community.

“We have generations of residential school survivors in my community, and we also have really high rates of poverty, crime, and addiction, substance abuse. Like, we have it all in my community. One of the things that helped me was a summer position that I took on. It involved land management. I was out with the seismic crews looking at pretty much resurveying our entire reserve.”

Since then, Mbarki has worked on pipelines. And: “I’ve worked on oil and gas. I’ve worked on mining operations. And I’ve been in the last 15 years... through the full lifecycle of a project.... I got to see how land was restored back to its original state.... I was out there taking soil samples. I was out there taking water samples. And I was out there planting trees. And if we can get Indigenous youth involved in this part of the industry, we would have a win-win situation for everyone.”

Sankey says that Indigenous people understand they don’t have the capacity on their own to make these projects succeed. “But that being said, we have to be able to open our arms and create a landing strip for industry to come to the table. So as a collective as Indigenous communities, we have to be open-minded and understanding that we do have an audience that comes to us that doesn’t know who we are....

“It’s an opportunity for us to develop a relationship that we could create a smooth transition and create dialogue, leadership to leadership, where we could move forward and get these projects built to our standards. And industry wants to support that. But we have to be willing to open the door, and make sure the landing strip is ready.

Chris Sankey speaks at IPSS 2022 (PHOTO BY DARRYL DYCK FOR IPSS).

“I keep telling our people, ‘Don’t wait for government to transfer your lands because you’ll be waiting forever. Go after all the fee simple land available to you and strategically position yourself so that when these opportunities do come, like these mega projects, you’re in a very strong position to leverage and bring something to the table.’ Not just with your land, but our language, arts, culture, and our knowledge.”

Both Mbarki and Sankey advocate for early Indigenous engagement in any large projects. “Not just for the project itself,” says Mbarki, “But also for the community so they know where these projects are going to be in 20, 40 years.

“One of the obstacles that we face is energy literacy. You know, we need to go out to our communities and tell them that pipelines [are for] specific commodities, whether it’s oil or natural gas for LNG. You can not pump one in the other. They’re specifically made and built for the commodity that it’s going for. That’s one of the biggest misunderstandings that I’ve seen out there.”

Adds Sankey: “Energy literacy is key, so that as a community and as leaders, you’re armed with that information, because there is a lot of misinformation that has basically scared the crap out of everybody when you talk about oil and gas.”

He actively encourages Nations to work together. “If we’re going to move forward, we need to be able to work together because if we don’t solve what we’re dealing with today... the next generation and the next generation is going be dealing with the mess that we left them. So it’s important that we get it and have these tough discussions and don’t be afraid to talk about energy.

“I’ve always said: Together we’re stronger.... Come together to break bread and sit down and have a cup of tea... and have a frank discussion. Because the only way we’re going get through this is by having those tough discussions.”

Mbarki agrees: “The more that we come together with each other, the more prosperity that we’re going to bring.”

Chris Sankey is returning to IPSS in Vancouver and online on June 1st and 2nd, 2023. Tickets to this important event are available here.

This article was originally published in Rights & Respect, Issue 2. To purchase a physical copy of the magazine, click here. To purchase tickets to the Indigenous Partnerships Success Showcase, coming June 1-2, 2023, click here.

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