Collaboration between northern First Nations, Metis leads to pipeline partnership

Pipe for the Trans Mountain pipeline is unloaded in Edson, Alta. on June 18, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

Investments from the private sector, coupled with $40 million in loan guarantee support from the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC), and a partnership with Suncor Energy will allow eight Indigenous communities from northeastern Alberta to share $16 million in annual revenue from the Northern Courier Pipeline System.

In 2019, Suncor obtained the rights to TC Energy's 15 per cent of the pipeline. The 90 km Northern Courier carries bitumen/diluent from the Fort Hills Oil Sands project to the East Tank Farm. The $1.3 billion purchase was made with the intention of forming a partnership with the eight Indigenous communities.

For more than two years, the Indigenous communities in the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo-the First Nations of Athabasca Chipewyan, Fort McMurray, and Chipewyan Prairie and the Metis communities of Fort McKay, Willow Lake, Conklin, Fort McMurray, and Fort Chipewyan-have been in discussions with the AIOC to secure a loan guarantee.

The formation of the Astisiy Limited Partnership now sees the Indigenous communities owning a 95 per cent share of the pipeline, and Suncor the remaining five per cent. Suncor will continue to operate the line.

“We've been here for generations throughout the region. This is the only region you really see that collaboration, that cooperation between First Nations and Metis. It's something to aspire to for the rest of Canada,” said Ron Quintal, president of the Fort McKay Metis Nation.

“We are realizing real tangible economic reconciliation.”

“The Astisiy partnership is going to provide stable and structured income for eight Indigenous communities and this is a huge step forward in economic reconciliation,” said Mark Little, president and CEO of Suncor.

“We went out to a number of investment groups to be able to collectively raise the funds and what AIOC has done is essentially guaranteed $40 million of that investment,” said Quintal, who is quick to add that having Suncor back the effort with “billions of dollars in assets helped put together the loan package.”

The Indigenous communities are not equal parties in the venture.

“Over the last two years there was a number of negotiations that went on between Suncor and the Indigenous communities in terms of putting together an equation that calculates essentially what everybody's shares would be,” said Quintal.

The three First Nations have the “lions share of the ownership,” he says, but Fort McKay's 11 per cent ownership represents the largest share for Metis communities.

That ownership translates into $1.6 million guaranteed annual revenue for Fort McKay for 30 to 40 years, says Quintal. About $300,000 annually for the next 18 or 19 years will go towards servicing the loan and building a fund for eventual reclamation of the line.

But that still leaves $1.3 million annually going into community coffers.

“The great thing (is) we can use it for whatever we like,” said Quintal.

“We want to use the money to invest in our kids, to get them the best education they can, send them to university and invest in our future. That's really what this money is for, an investment in the future development of our community.”

Along with education, the money will be used for infrastructure, services and programs.

Some of that money will also go into the community's Heritage Fund, which is “locked in” for 40 years. Contributions to that fund also come from the Fort McKay Group of Companies (FMGOC), which last year, says Quintal, generated more than $100 million in gross revenue.

Revenue from the many impact benefit agreements and long-term sustainability agreements that have been signed with oilsand operators, as well as revenue generated by FMGOC have already benefited the community, which will see a new fire hall, community centre, school, home renovations and community beautification, such as sidewalks, curbs and street lights.

“We're the only community that's declared self-government. We have our own lands, own housing, own constitution,” said Quintal. “It's all translating into something that's very exciting because the community is buying into it. The community is loving the results that we're seeing… You look at Fort McKay today compared to two years ago and you'll see a huge change.”

Quintal says he's not worried that climate change initiatives will undermine this partnership.

“We look at green technology or moving towards addressing climate change. The oilsands is doing that. They're investing money to look at carbon capture technology. Something else we're also using the revenues for in the community is investing in green technology. We're investing in renewables,” he said.

Quintal points to solar panels recently installed in Fort McKay that will produce green energy and subsidize cost for electricity for members.

This is the first loan guarantee approved by AIOC for Metis communities.

“Launching the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation was our way to change the outcomes for more Indigenous communities so you would no longer miss out on the prosperity of the lands of your ancestors and for your grandchildren,” said Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson in a virtual launch event Sept. 16.

“The project shows the true meaning of reconciliation because it's supported and acted on in a positive way.”

The East Tank Farm is another joint partnership between Suncor and the Indigenous community. In 2017, Fort McKay First Nation and Mikisew Cree First Nation purchased a 49 per cent ownership in the East Tank Farm, located approximately 30 km north of Fort McMurray.