Over the past few weeks, the divisive issue of energy development and pipelines has returned to the national spotlight due to Wet’suwet’en First Nation protests against the planned construction of the Coastal GasLink pipeline.

This recent conflict between First Nations leaders and oil and gas companies in Wet’suwet’en territory is nothing new and is part of a tumultuous and longstanding disagreement between different levels of First Nations leadership, energy companies, the provincial government and the federal government.

Who’s in charge?

Specifically, in the Wet’suwet’en situation, there is a clear difference of opinion on the LNG pipeline between the tribal council and the hereditary chiefs.

This particular conflict has been a long standing issue for many governments and energy companies to deal with as the leadership varies in opinion, structure and influence from nation to nation.

Some First Nations rely solely on an elected chief and council for the governing structure, as prescribed by the Indian Act. Others will have both an elected governing body as well as local hereditary chiefs which, as the name implies, are selected by family lineage and community status.

It is often this tension between elected chiefs and hereditary chiefs that cause many of the protests and disputes we see to break out over the thorny issue of energy development.

The need for principled leadership

As an Indigenous man myself, it is discouraging to see those chosen and elected to lead our communities fail to resolve their differences and create a better life for our people.

While I myself am personally in favour of oil and gas development, I have great respect for those who stand firm in their beliefs that oil and gas development is not beneficial for our people and our land.

Though I disagree strongly with this position, those who hold to it are principled in their opposition and for that, they deserve respect. The problem lies with those in leadership who talk out of both sides of their mouths in order not to offend either side.

Indigenous people need leaders who are principled and strong in their positions, who are willing to defend them and show why their ideas and policies are the best for improving the lives of our people. Leaders who sit on the fence and try to appease everybody accomplish nothing and are of no use to anyone.

The benefits of oil and gas

As a member of the Bigstone Cree Nation, I can attest to the great benefits the oil and gas industry has provided both for our nation and for different bands all across Western Canada.

The Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, seeking to decrease their reliance on the federal government and increase their own sovereignty, has teamed up with oil companies to provide a fund for youth and community programs, free from the micromanagement that accompanies federal funding.

Up in Fort St. John, the oil and gas industry provides gainful employment for many Indigenous people, allowing them the freedom and opportunity to carry on their traditions and maintain their cultural heritage in an area they have lived in for centuries.

Broad base of support

For these reasons, and many more, there is a large base of support for oil and gas development across the different treaty nations in Alberta.

This past summer, Enoch Cree Nation Chief William (Billy) Morin of Treaty 6 showed his strong support for the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion saying “First Nations have a true opportunity to be investors, to be beneficiaries of the true treaty relationship going forward.”

Only last month, Treaty 7 Chief Roy Fox of the Kainai Nation stated his firm opposition to the Liberal government’s anti-oil legislation, Bill C-69, saying “I and the majority of Treaty 7 chiefs strongly oppose the bill for its likely devastating impact on our ability to support our community members, as it would make it virtually impossible for my nation to fully benefit from the development of our energy resources.”

Furthermore, Chief Fox went on to say “I care greatly about the future of my people and their ability to access natural-resource revenues. I believe that the Canadian energy discussion could use some hard messages right about now.”

In Treaty 8, the newly elected chief of Bigstone, Silas Yellowknee, said that he “100% supports” the oil and gas industry and that “Alberta would almost be nothing without the oil industry.”

Strong leaders need to choose a path forward

Although there are certainly chiefs on both sides of the pipeline issue, here in Alberta, there is a growing consensus across all treaty nations that in order to maintain the long term health of our communities, First Nation’s leaders must step up and take control of our resources.

While the concerns of those in Wet’suwet’en and elsewhere are valid and understandable, the leadership, both hereditary and elected, must work in cohesion to make the best decision for their community as a whole.

While I am not privy to the ins and outs of the specific situation in Wet’suwet’en, I know enough to know that the current unresolved conflict will not yield long term peace or prosperity for the people of that nation.

Whichever path they should choose, strong, decisive leadership is necessary in order to provide the people of Wet’suwet’en with sense of stability and peace moving forward.

Change must come from within our people. We need leaders that will boldy move us forward down the path of truth and reconciliation.