Born in 1956, Jim Boucher was just seven years old when oilsands development began under pioneer developer Sun Oil Company, corporate predecessor of Suncor Energy, with the Great Canadian Oil Sands project.
At the time, Boucher notes, local First Nations in the Athabasca region were not consulted about development, which went ahead anyway.
In 1983, Boucher, then a young man, was one of the first aboriginal activists to block a local road to send a message to oilsands developers.
Today, as chief of the Fort McKay First Nations, Boucher leads one of the most business-savvy First Nations in the country, which earns most of its revenue from its host of oilsands service and supply companies.
Boucher is a believer that First Nations and Canadians can have the best of both worlds—development and a healthy environment—if everyone works together.
“The pipeline debate is being framed as either/or. Either we cannot have pipelines or we cannot protect the environment,” says Boucher, paraphrasing the position some environmental activists have taken in the debate over pipeline development.
“We can have both, in that we can protect the environment…allowing development to proceed in an orderly fashion,” he says.
“That means we, as Canadians, can have a conversation as to what our reasonable expectations are so that we can continue to grow as a country and see that First Nations people grow economically, socially and politically.”
Following a speech in Calgary, Boucher fielded reporters’ questions, commenting on a recent Montreal meeting where several First Nations agreed to oppose not just pipeline development but also crude oil tankers and any other oilsands-related development.
“I was disappointed by that,” he said.
“I felt it was not informed with respect to the people affected by oilsands development. Our Fort McKay community…in the Athabasca oilsands is immersed in the economy quite substantially, and they are the people with the most to lose if they turn off the taps with regard to oilsands development.”
Addressing why feelings have boiled over now, he did not underestimate the role of environmental activists.
“I think it’s a matter of people getting riled up by environmental groups and those taking a social position with regards to pipelines,” he said.
That position, he said, nonetheless has to be understood, and Boucher looks forward to engaging in discussions on that score.
“But I would say a lot of people are looking at environmental issues from a class point of view, and I have to disagree with that. There’s more to it than what people are saying.”
In recent years, Fort McKay has prospered from oilsands development, and aboriginal businesses in the Athabasca region have been active partners. During his earlier address at the Pipeline Gridlock Conference, Boucher traced Fort McKay’s involvement with the oilsands back to 1986 when his people formed the first of several businesses that later reaped the benefits of oilsands development.
About 65 kilometres north of Fort McMurray, Fort McKay First Nation lies on the banks of the Athabasca River that provides water for several oilsands projects. Fort McKay is seen as being solidly in the “pro-development” camp, putting it at odds with many First Nations in B.C., among others.
Since the mid-1980s, Boucher estimated the oilsands in the Fort McKay area has generated about $2 billion to $3 billion in development, allowing Fort McKay companies to grow steadily in size and capacity. Today, the First Nation’s annual budget is roughly $60 million, up from $40 million in 2015. He put the average household income in Fort McKay at about $120,000.
Yet, in the face of increasingly vocal opposition from Aboriginals in Ontario, Quebec, and B.C., Boucher called for more dialogue between First Nations on both sides of the development question.
“I think we need to…consult with each other and have an exchange across the country,” he said.
Dialogue is needed not just with First Nations, but also with many others in Quebec and Ontario who “need to understand that 25 per cent of the Canadian economy is oil. We need to keep our economy healthy so that we continue to derive the benefits of living in a very affluent society,” he said.
During his earlier speech, Boucher said logic dictates that “we can protect the environment with well-regulated standards and regulations so that our pipelines can move products east to west and vice versa. I think it’s quite unrealistic to say either/or.”
Repeating what others have said before, Boucher said society’s reliance on hydrocarbons will not go away any time soon, but will likely continue for some time: “It’s naive to think that we can turn off the oil industry and the economy overnight without having to face repercussions.”
As for feelings for or against oil industry development, the scene is not homogenous across the country, he said.
“There certainly are people, as evidenced by First Nations’ attendance at today’s conference who are very keen to get the economy going, especially in their own communities, so people can benefit,” he added.
Yet, he acknowledged the strength of opposition from Aboriginal People elsewhere in the country. As for reconciling divergent views among First Nations, he said people should have a conversation but should not expect a consensus.
“I don’t think there will be a consensus…, whether in Canadian or in First Nations society, but I think there needs to be an understanding about what the benefits are and about the care that needs to be taken on these projects so that our people are not hurt. We have made a determination to do that, and of course, we need to listen to each other.”
Still responding to questions, he said Ottawa stands to play a key role in future pipeline development, including addressing such First Nation concerns as protection of treaty and Aboriginal rights and protecting the environment.
“The government has a lot to offer in that conversation,” he said. “There needs to be accommodation with regard to issues that arise because lands are taken up and put under the control of developers, and our treaty rights are affected. People need to resolve those issues. The government is instrumental in ensuring that we have a really good playing field for projects to proceed.”
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