The First Nations Major Projects Coalition is fostering reconciliation by creating a level playing field for First Nations when it comes to major energy, infrastructure, transportation, and natural resource projects. The Coalition provides the resources and opportunities for First Nations to take greater ownership of the major projects that occur in their territories. “The Coalition is where ownership, partnerships, and relationships come together,” says Niilo Edwards, executive director of the Coalition. “Our main focus is to ensure that First Nations have the tools and advice that they need to once again be an economic force in these lands.” The Coalition has its roots in 2013 when a group of First Nations in British Columbia came together to take a more active role in the major development projects taking place on their lands. Their early efforts included evaluating how an ownership stake in projects might work, how to access the capital needed for negotiations and ownership via federal loan guarantees, and how to manage the cumulative environmental impact of projects. Two years later, the First Nations Major Projects Coalition was officially established with 11 members located mostly in British Columbia. Today, there are 70 First Nation members spread across five provinces and one territory. In that time, the Coalition has facilitated several multi-million- and even billion-dollar projects, including the sale of equity in the Coastal Gas Link LNG Pipeline, the NeToo Hydropower Project, the Prince George to Kitimat Transmission, and the Clarke Lake Geothermal Project. This kind of work is long overdue. According to a survey carried out by the Coalition, a majority of First Nations lack the personnel, policies, and expertise to successfully become involved in the major projects that take place in their traditional territories. 71% of the First Nations surveyed did not even have the ability to hire the experts they would need to help review and analyze the economic and environmental impact of projects, despite 78% of First Nations expressing interest in owning equity in major projects. Although First Nations have the right to be consulted on resource and project development in their territories, they have always been at a disadvantage when it comes to negotiations. Lack of access to financing, lack of expertise, and policy frameworks that privilege industry are just a few of the historic barriers that have created an environment of exclusion. Additionally, lack of coordination on the part of First Nations has made it possible for industry to use a divide-and-conquer strategy on projects that span multiple First Nation territories. Collective Indigenous economic power is changing this paradigm for the benefit of not only First Nations, but private Industry and the environment as well. “When we work together, we have more bargaining power to make sure our interests are protected and that projects are environmentally sound,” says Edwards. “When we are united, that keeps industry from running the show. At the same time, private industry benefits from having one body to deal with. The Coalition provides confidence to industry because we act as a professional clearing house of information and coordination.”
“Continue to persevere and don’t lose focus. There will be setbacks, but we’re still here because we’ve never stopped thinking about what our vision is. No matter what anybody says, don’t give up,” says Edwards When negotiations go better for all parties involved, this leads to better outcomes and more robust partnerships. First Nations are able to share in the wealth generated from projects and have greater control over the environmental impacts. Private companies are able to avoid situations where they end up in court or dealing with protests and delays that can lead to a negative credit rating. They also benefit from partnerships with those who know the land best. “Who better to have as partners than those who have been on the land for 10,000 years?” says Edwards. The work of the Coalition goes beyond uniting First Nations at the bargaining table to include meeting the capacity and technological needs of their members throughout the process. “The Coalition also provides the tools to help our members assess the social and economic effects of projects on their communities. For example, we provide assessments of the impact of projects on Indigenous culture, assessments of the impacts to health, assessment of projects on Indigenous land use, and how to ensure meaningful integration of Indigenous knowledge into major project assessments,” says Edwards. The Coalition also helps First Nations members overcome barriers to accessing capital, understand and undertake benefit sharing agreements, and manage wealth through their Economic Participation and Project Capacity Support initiatives. They have also been huge advocates for sovereign loan guarantees through federal and provincial governments. According to Edwards, this technical and capacity support is empowering communities with the knowledge and tools to chart their own path, make their own decisions, and continue to create their own success. “The business information we provide is helping to increase the readiness of our communities for the next big projects that lay ahead, and it provides the ability for our members to respond to such opportunities in a manner that is designed to protect community interests while maximizing economic benefits and social outcomes.” This is a core part of how the Coalition approaches its work. As a not-for-profit, the Coalition provides its services to First Nation members free of charge. They also do not take a financial interest in the outcome of the projects, nor do they make business decisions for communities. Everything is led by First Nations and reflects their values and priorities. The Coalition’s governance, mandate, and operations were all designed with First Nations. First Nations have led the work of the Coalition from the beginning. “We involve our members directly in the process—we’re not a bunch of consultants coming up with what we think communities should do. It’s communities giving us direction,” says Edwards. Being community-led is the foundation of the Coalition’s success, along with a tremendous board of directors and tech team that believes deeply in the work. Edwards’s message to Indigenous communities is that if First Nations and other Indigenous communities want greater control over what happens on their lands, they need to be at the table. “You have to be at the table to be a part of the conversation. If you’re not at the table, you’re missing out.