First Nation leaders know the value of access to traditional territories

Obsidian Energy should negotiate an agreement with Woodland Cree First Nation because it won’t win this fight

Bill Hatton was a Vietnam vet, 300 pounds of menace, and an imposing figure around the board table. His only job, he once explained to me, was to sit across from CEOs and explain what access to First Nation traditional lands was going to cost them. The same principle is now at play in the dispute between the Woodland Cree First Nation (WCFN) and Obsidian Energy, which is getting uglier by the day.

Hatton returned home to Minnesota after his discharge and fell into community development. He was influenced by the work of notorious activist Saul Alinksy, who died in 1972. At some point he drifted into community economic development. In those days, that was defined as helping local and minority communities create businesses that boosted local employment while offering goods and services not otherwise available in the neighbourhood.

Kitsaki Management is well known and respected for managing profitable joint venture companies.

Like Alinsky, Hatton was a character. He talked in a grand eloquent style, frequently quoting – perhaps accurately, but probably not, who could tell? – military strategists like Von Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. During the 1980s he worked in northern Saskatchewan with the La Ronge Band, which pioneered joint ventures between Canadian companies (eg trucking) and Indigenous communities. 

When I met him in the early 1990s, he was essentially a thug for hire. At least that was the way corporate types viewed him. They much preferred negotiating with the less experienced First Nations than the steely-eyed ex-Marine. Hatton knew how to say “no” and back it up. It’s a simple skill, much harder to do than describe, and his services were much in demand from First Nations back in the day.

But Hatton never forgot a lesson he learned during his days with the La Ronge Band: transfer skills to Indigenous leaders. A related lesson he never tired of talking about is the importance of building institutional and management capacity to support those leaders.

Watching interviews with WCFN Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom reminds me of Hatton, who hadn’t worked in Canada for years and passed away some time ago. Articulate, resolute, and happy to call out Obsidian CEO Stephan Loukas for showing no respect to First Nation leaders. He has the backing of his council and his community. And, after yesterday, support on the ground at the WCFN camp near Peace River from other Chiefs.

Those Indigenous leaders are tough negotiators. They know exactly what they want: “It’s pretty simple from our end,” says Driftpile Cree Nation Chief Dwayne Laboucan. “If you’re going to come and make a livelihood from our lands, we must too. That’s our message to oil and gas: you’re not going to come in here and start bullying us. We’re here to stay and we’re ready to fight.”

To be fair to the oil and gas industry, it has spent considerable effort building relationships with Alberta First Nations, including many Indigenous contractors, many of them nation-owned development corporations. Producers’ operations are often located on First Nations land, so looking to the local community for workers and services makes plenty of sense. 

Chief Isaac Laboucan-Avirom, Woodland Cree First Nation.

But the economic benefits from oil and gas extraction haven’t helped many First Nations, including the WCFN, according to Chief Laboucan-Avirom.

“My people shouldn’t be living in poverty,” he said. “We want to be part of the workforce. We want to develop mega projects. We want to be owners of the resources. And you’re darn rights it is about money.”

First Nations aren’t the only locals worried about money. The WCFN camp is littered with oilfield equipment like bulldozers brought by local contractors. They say Obsidian is using a contractor from Rocky Mountain House, hundreds of kilometres away, while local service companies remain idle. 

The combination of a determined Chief Laboucan-Avirom, support from many other Indigenous communities, and the visible support from local companies is a potent opposition to the legal tactics of Loukas and Obsidian. Consultants like Bill Hatton are no longer needed. Indigenous leadership is perfectly capable of standing up to not only Obsidian, but also the Alberta Energy Regulator and the provincial government, who have been called out by the Chiefs for their roles in creating the current deadlock.

If I was advising Loukas, my advice would be to negotiate an agreement with Chief Laboucan-Avirom as quickly as possible. Pay the asking price and count yourself lucky that it’s not higher.

Even in industry-friendly Alberta the chances of Obsidian winning this dispute are slim to none and slim left town decades ago.

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