​Meet this key First Nations leader staking out Trans Mountain middle ground

Cheam First Nation Chief Ernie Crey looks over notes before being joined by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for a discussion with the Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee, on the Cheam First Nation near Chilliwack, B.C., on Tuesday June 5, 2018. Image: The Canadian Press/Darryl Dyck

The man in the middle is quite a man.

Ernie Crey, leader of the Cheam First Nation, has arguably emerged as the most important factor in finding the middle path in the national and provincial dispute to build the $7.4 billion project that proposes to twin the Trans Mountain pipeline from Edmonton to Burnaby.

Crey is a supporter of the project, a credible voice who has experienced great personal loss – his sister a victim of Robert Pickton, his childhood upended into foster care by the so-named Sixties Scoop – to advocate for justice, reconciliation and partnership in the Canada to come.

He might be Justin Trudeau’s most valuable asset in the formidable political, economic and social battleground that faces the project, bought last month in controversial haste by the federal government for $4.5 billion from Kinder Morgan. It was notable that last week Trudeau met Crey and his Indigenous Advisory and Monitoring Committee that addresses pipeline issues raised by First Nations. He needs to know him very, very well now.

It borders on political opportunism for the prime minister, but if Trudeau can effect through Crey an involvement by First Nations in an ownership and operation stake of the former Kinder Morgan assets, we are on to something new as a nation. Trudeau has had trouble matching his deeds to his words on our Indigenous destiny. He says he wants a nation-to-nation relationship, but he has put this new economic pact in the queue behind a forlorn process to examine the travesties of missing and murdered women.

And his determination to build the pipeline will not get the job done in the face of so many court challenges and protests that must deal with questions of how extensive Indigenous consultation and consent must be. He needs a leader, maybe several, alongside.

Crey offers Trudeau a chance to cut through the weeds and have something to boast about instead of bromides. As the federal government determines how it will structure the Kinder Morgan assets, it would be wise to court and commit to an Indigenous consortium to help steward the holdings.

Crey is ahead of the game, with arrangements in place in the construction process for the Cheam. There are so many quick wins, and it is difficult to rank them. But first and foremost, the acquisition is not an investment as much as it is a takeover of a profitable business. Any new stakeholder is presumably acquiring a solid, going concern. This is not a handoff of a bad bag, by any means.

Given that Ottawa is offering to mitigate financial consequences of political delay of the pipeline twinning, this is an opportune vector for First Nations leadership in a nationally significant project that will yield dividends and propel Indigenous opportunity.

Yes, there are detractors. Aside from environmentalists, more than 50 First Nations are on the record or in the courts to oppose the proposal that would bring diluted bitumen to tidewater, presumably to find a more lucrative market than America for the extracted oilsands of Alberta.

Crey has been clear that, with some exceptions (like the People of the Inlet, the Tsleil-Waututh in our midst), these adversaries are not First Nations with “skin in the game,” meaning most represent territory well away from any project impact.

Meanwhile, there are more than 50 First Nations either supporting or benefiting from agreements along or near the pipeline.

What will be instructive in the weeks ahead, as Ottawa tries quickly to offload the project before August without having to create a Crown corporation and the bureaucracy to manage it, is how Crey mobilizes and finances.

His success in this regard is not merely about blunting the opposition to the project but in sharing equity on a matter of economic import. In the process it takes a step toward effecting Trudeau’s nation-to-nation vision, something he might have campaigned in 2019 without.

I have to think there are backers, and I have to hope they will see their role in history in this. In the posturing and polarizing of the project, we could all use the wisdom of our founding people. •

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver Media Group and vice-president of Glacier Media.

— Business in Vancouver

Kirk Lapointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president of audience and business development with Glacier Media.  

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