“Supporter Spotlight” features Canadians with a passion for Canada’s Natural Resource sector. Our spotlight this month is Robert Merasty, the Executive Director of the Indigenous Resource Network. We talk to Bob about the importance of natural resource development for Indigenous communities across Canada.
1 - Canada Action: Bob, thank you so much for taking the time today. You are the former Chief of Flying Dust Cree Nation, the former Regional Chief for the 74 Nations of Saskatchewan under the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and Executive Director for the Indigenous Resource Network. Can you talk to us about the Indigenous Resource Network and what its mission is?
Bob Merasty: Absolutely and thank you for giving me the honour of doing this interview! It's been my life's work to build bridges for our Indigenous peoples. To address the poverty, our poor socio-economic conditions, to change our status quo, and the challenges and needs we have in our community which are all great. The Indigenous Resource Network was an absolute fit because it brings about those opportunities in a good way.
The Creator gave us these lands and resources to share and to provide for all that we need. That was the intent when the Creator gave us these lands and resources. And so that's the ideology and the teachings behind our spirituality and so that's why the Indigenous Resource Network fits for me. It's about responsible resource development. We don't say yes to every resource building project; we say yes to resource building projects that are responsible first and foremost and cater to environmental stewardship. It addresses our resource development projects in a way that they bring both revenue generation, jobs and direct impact on the lifestyles and health of our communities and citizens.
2 - Canada Action: There seems to be a lot of misconceptions about the stance of Indigenous communities in regards to pipelines and natural resource development.
When watching the news, one gets the impression that all Indigenous people and communities are against natural resource development. In reality, most Indigenous communities support and depend on resource development projects. According to a poll done by Environics Research in September 2022, a significant majority - (65 percent) of Indigenous people living in rural Canada support natural resource development, outweighing those opposed by a ratio of 2:1. Why don’t we hear more about Indigenous support of these projects?
Bob Merasty: As the Indigenous Resource Network we represent Indigenous leaders, entrepreneurs, workers, and community citizens. So we do our due diligence to understand and to hear that voice. We’ve done our polls and they have really pointed out that 65-70% of people in our communities know that the way for us to address our poor socio-economic conditions and poverty is through responsible resource development. So we are now addressing that narrative so people understand that we are going to take resource development on to change our circumstances. The light at the end of the tunnel for us is to utilize what's available to us. And so you ask me why [the misconception that Indigenous oppose resource development] is happening? I believe there are a lot of people out there with a lot of resources and efforts devoted to changing the information and saying that [Indigenous peoples] don’t want resource development and that couldn’t be further from the truth.
We've had people like Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio attacking the Coastal Gas Link project which 16 communities have signed on. Each of those communities has made a decision within their knowledge keepers and citizens to pursue economic development for their people because they see that as the way through.
The first thing that we say is that we do not compromise our relationship to Mother Earth and environmental stewardship. That is a part of who we are as Indigenous peoples. Our opportunity is there to address our economic challenges and poverty in our communities.
So we are changing the narrative and each community has to make their own decision. Each nation is a nation unto itself. Those who choose not to engage in responsible resource development, that is their right. But those who choose to address their economic conditions in a responsible way that is their right also.
3 - Canada Action: You wrote an article for the Prince Albert Daily Herald titled “Indigenous people faced with a choice of development or poverty”. In it you say that: “As Indigenous people, we sometimes see development and projects take place without receiving any benefits. Industry working with First Nations is a step forward in reconciliation.” There are a lot of challenges owing to the Indian Act and past and present government policy that has made First Nations involvement difficult.
The oil & gas industry has changed a lot in the past 25 years and a lot of companies now have Indigenous reconciliation plans, to better their relationships with native communities and employees, such that extractive services are the biggest employer of Indigenous peoples in Canada and do more indigenous procurement than any other sector. How do these plans concretely better the lives of Indigenous communities? How has the relationship between industry and the communities improved over the past 20 years?
Bob Merasty: Absolutely great question. We now have educated and knowledgeable experienced leaders. So we're no longer sitting at the table where we're getting the crumbs off the table or no longer passengers in the car. We are driving a vehicle now. We are now getting our share of the cake because we have knowledgeable well-educated leaders now that understand business. And part of a campaign we’ve engaged in as the Indigenous Resource Network is to have investment capital being available to us in various streams. So we’re sitting at the table legitimately having ownership and strong equity stake in each project and the utilization and exploration of the resources on our land. So we have a stake which translates into a much larger revenue share, more jobs, more training and larger pay back to the community directly in terms of changing the economy and changing the lifestyles of our people. These are exciting times because industry is coming together with our communities and are coming together and exploring what is possible.
And I love the words of one of our most famous actors; Chief Dan George:
“We have the responsibility to explore what is possible by working together.”
And that is what's happening. Industry in oil and gas, mining, forestry, energy, agriculture and even fishing are being explored in terms of meaningful win-win partnerships with our Indigenous communities. And we are telling our government to sit back and let these happen because it really builds Canada's economy. By doing that you’re enhancing the foundation for the future.
Canada Action: Yes. And when we're talking about the economy I don't think people realize that these projects mean funds going back into the communities for schools, hospitals, centres etc.
Bob Merasty: Absolutely. We don't we don't want to be dependent on Canada. We are proud nations unto ourselves so we are recognizing that the path forward is to be involved in a meaningful way in different industry sectors. Particularly in LNG and oil & gas, that’s billions of dollars in 100 + communities where we benefit and contribute to the lifestyle and the poverty in our community. We’ve said to government, why have you taken that decision away from us to determine what is ethically environmentally and economically responsible? We have a right to determine what’s right and what’s in our best interest.
The other point is that we are in the midst of an energy crisis. And it doesn’t make sense to shut down major energy and oil & gas projects. If we shut down energy projects we're going to have to go and buy our energy from other countries where it's going to cost us. I know industry is working hard to meet those emission reduction targets [set by government]but we have to look at how realistic it is with our Indigenous communities and with the industry.
4- Canada Action: Enbridge recently announced that 23 First Nations and Métis communities plan to invest $1.12 billion to acquire an 11% interest in seven Enbridge pipelines in Alberta’s Athabasca region, the largest-ever energy-related Indigenous partnership transaction in North America.
Unfortunately, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are actively working against Indigenous communities’ interests by insisting Indigenous people not pursue agreements of this kind. We have most definitely seen a rise in environmental groups “defending” Indigenous rights and speaking on behalf of Indigenous communities when it comes to natural resource development. How do you feel when you hear about these groups speaking up on your behalf? Are they truly helping Indigenous communities?
Bob Merasty: It is up to each community to determine what is ethically, environmentally, and economically responsible for themselves.
Taking care of our Mother Earth has always been the way of our people. It's part of our spirituality and we will not compromise that. That’s paramount.
And so these groups [Sierra Club and Greenpeace]comment, purport to speak on behalf of the Indigenous communities, I say, have you actually sat down with these communities? If we take a look at the Enbridge project that we spoke about earlier, those 23 communities signed on to this project and made that decision to pursue this with first and foremost our Mother Earth in mind.
And that’s the same op-eds we did when Mark Ruffalo and Leonardo DiCaprio were making comments about Indigenous communities and Coastal Gas Link. We said that they should go sit down with each of those communities.
And that's what I would say to these environmental groups. Sit down with each of those communities and listen to them. Listen to what it is that they have decided for their community. They have decided to do something about the poverty in their communities.
I lived in poverty growing up and I currently live it now. My grandchildren on Flying Dust First Nation live in poverty. My niece is struggling to put food on the table for her kids. Our young people are addicted to drugs and there is so much gang activity in their communities. There are so many needs. Our elders are being invaded… And that's what I would say to those environmental groups. Listen to what is happening in our communities and how do we address those needs.
5- Canada Action: What can Canadians do to help Indigenous communities? What can be done to support Indigenous people?
Bob Merasty: I see so many young people really want to be part of the solution and they are tired of the negativity and want to be part of the solution. And organizations like Canada Action and other youth groups are doing a tremendous job across Canada. What I’ll say to these people is that you're going to be challenged by those people that don’t want the status quo to change and want to continue to see us live in poverty and continue to have social issues. So that's what I would say to people who want to help. Become well-versed and knowledgeable about issues in our communities. Educate yourself. Become informed. And then once you've done that, then you can start to focus on what part you can play.
Here’s an example of a company that did that - Cenovus. Wow! They knew that housing is a huge issue in our communities so they said we're going to help address this by helping with housing in six communities in Northern Alberta. So they made a commitment of 10 million dollars per year for the next 5 years.
So that's the kind of talk the talk and walk the walk.
Get educated, get informed and be part of the solution.
6 - Canada Action: Canada Action: Why do you think all Canadians should care about Canadian natural resource development? Is there any kind of message that you want to tell Canadians reading this?
Bob Merasty: Absolutely. I’ve got two big messages that are near and dear to my heart. One is that in Canada we have the opportunity. There are just all sorts of beautiful people and diverse cultures that want to share spirituality, traditions, ceremonies and their food (he laughs). We have the opportunity to learn about each other's cultures and to do it in a respectable and honest way. And by making that commitment as Canadians to learn about the history, the true history of our Indigenous peoples you have a better appreciation and better understanding of our indigenous people and how we must all work together to help each other. That's first and foremost. And if you don't understand that then understand this: Indigenous peoples are a necessary component, an integral component of Canada's economic foundation for the future by engaging in responsible resource development we make that foundation more solid.
7 - Canada Action: Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?
Bob Merasty: I'm just absolutely honoured to do the work that I'm doing. I'm thankful and love the work that I do with the Indigenous Resource Network. We are about collaboration and we've come in and carved a niche out to be a communications advocacy group that says let's work together, let’s collaborate to make Canada more economically successful so we can all win!
I see these as exciting times to collaborate and as I said before, in the words of Chief Dan George - We have a responsibility to explore what we can achieve together.
Canada Action: Thank you so much Bob! It’s been a pleasure!
Bob Merasty: Thank you!
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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