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Chief Greg Desjarlais: A strong oil and gas industry will support First Nations communities (Part 2)

Updated: Sep 27, 2020

See Part 1 of the interview here.

Although the indigenous portfolio is a priority today for the government, this was not the case just 20-25 years ago. In light of this significant change, we asked Chief Desjarlais for his thoughts on variety of issues affecting indigenous Canadians.

“As a chief, I represent the 1876 treaty [Treaty 6] and the continued well-being of our community based on that agreement. As you know, the First Nations do not receive equalization payments that [Albertan] towns and cities receive, so thinking about the future and children not yet born are always on my mind. Even though there is more awareness now than ever and we’re moving forward for the better, we must always remain cautious. We’re the ones that can’t self-destruct the treaty."

“Although many chiefs are becoming more vocal, I always try to be cautious of what I say and the fights we pick to get ourselves involved in, as it rests on the delicate balance established by the treaty. Given all this recent talk of Western separation, I want to say: Alberta now has a taste of what disrespect, being pushed to the sidelines and having to fight for your survival is like.”

Chief Desjarlais also expressed dissatisfaction with foreign environmental figures that have lobbied against Canadian oil and gas. “You know, some people call it eco-colonialism, given the fact that it meddles with the indigenous reconciliation process. I’m not going to judge whether that’s an appropriate label or not, but I can say this: I can’t call myself a member of Greenpeace when there are hundreds of wells in our yard. I can also say to critics that we [Frog Lake] have some of the cleanest wells around, with first, second and third safety controls to prevent contamination and protect the environment. We’re doing our due diligence to keep Mother Earth clean.”

The chief also noted how resource development was intertwined with indigenous prosperity. “I would like to say this to the naysayers: as a chief and a First Nations band member, we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t. If we don't utilize our natural resources, pushing that ‘sovereignty button’ means we’d starve. To strive for First Nations sovereignty within Canada, we need to be able to live off the land. With the funding we receive from the feds, we can’t even build one house. As a chief, I have to decide: do I keep my people in poverty, or do I uplift them? With the oil dividends, we’ve been able to build hundreds of homes and renovate many more. Resource development has allowed us to send our children to college and university, to purchase additional land for the community in Lloydminster. These aren’t short-term benefits either, as some might argue: I’m doing everything I can to make sure that Frog Lake will remain shareholders for life. We’re still going to be pumping oil in forty years. I promise that—the benefits of oil will help future generations of my community.”

Lastly, Chief Desjarlais concluded by providing us with some personal insight on indigenous reconciliation and the culture of oil and gas. “That one guy working on that rig doesn’t just look out for his immediate family, but his extended family: his parents, his nieces and nephews. The benefits of resource development interlink with the fact that the First Nations are a community-oriented society—we branch out. I’d also like to note that in oil and gas, we’re increasingly focusing on safety and mental health. It’s all looking up from here, because we’re simultaneously fighting the harmful stereotype of being stigmatized as lazy, proving how we’re hard-working people who can work side-by-side with anyone. Resource development minimizes unemployment and suicide, those dark things that accompany poverty. In the end, oil and gas are providing us with long-term solutions. In honour of this, I give back to The Creator, going without water and food to offer prayers of reconciliation. However, reconciliation must also come from within, and I want to tell all our young people one thing: don’t be buried, but have heart.”

Chief Desjarlais’ opinion piece in The Globe and Mail on how Indigenous communities benefit from oil and gas can be accessed here.

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