Indigenous equity participation in infrastructure is key to achieving net-zero and reconciliation

Canada will not achieve Indigenous reconciliation or reach net-zero carbon emissions without Indigenous equity participation.

The First Nations Major Projects Coalition (FNMPC) is counting on the federal government to live up to its commitment in Budget 2024 to establish a national Indigenous loan guarantee program, outlined in it’s 2023 Fall Economic Statement.

The desire of First Nations to access competitive capital to facilitate equity ownership in major projects was a key issue that led First Nations to establish FNMPC as a non-profit in 2017. Since that time, the FNMPC has advocated such a program.

“Achieving Indigenous consent through partnership is material to the future of the Canadian economy, particularly as we look to advance major projects that will help Canada meet its 2050 net-zero targets.  Today’s commitment to establish a national Indigenous loan guarantee program is a significant step on our shared path of economic reconciliation and a further unwinding of the economic exclusion we as First Nations people have been subjected to under the Indian Act. We want our future generations to have the same opportunity as all Canadians,” stated Chief Sharleen Gale, chair of the board of directors of FNMPC, when the feds made the announcement.

“We remain ready, willing and able to inform on and share our expertise and knowledge to establish a robust loan guarantee program to best meet the needs and the benefit of all of Indigenous Peoples, and Canada,” added Gale. “As an initial input, the implementation of a national Indigenous loan guarantee program should provide strategic investments to increase the capacity of Indigenous nations to co-develop business deals with the private sector based on Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. We look to provide many more insights, as we work towards meaningful economic reconciliation.”

In a recent statement, the FNMPC pointed out that at the provincial level, similar programs in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and Alberta have had positive impact.

“In September 2022, the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC) played a key role in the landmark agreement by 23 First Nations and Metis communities to acquire an 11.56 per cent non-operating interest in seven Enbridge pipelines located in northern Alberta (valued at $1 billion). This deal would not have been possible without a loan guarantee from AIOC.

“However, these programs are not accessible to Indigenous nations outside of those provinces, and Canada needs a national Indigenous loan guarantee program to bridge this gap. For example, the membership of the FNMPC has finalized the business terms on three significant projects worth $14.5 billion combined that will need equity financing in the next 18 to 24 months, but these projects are in provinces without a program that support First Nations in their pursuit of equity ownership.”

Canada Infrastructure Bank initiatives

The Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) has stepped forward with a pair of announcements aimed at enabling infrastructure in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities.

Its Indigenous Equity Initiative (IEI) is designed to support communities in purchasing equity ownership stakes in infrastructure projects within their traditional territories that the CIB is also investing in—part of the CIB’s commitment to invest at least $1 billion in Indigenous infrastructure.

“The CIB’s plan to offer Indigenous equity is designed to help First Nation, Métis and Inuit communities to purchase ownership stakes in key infrastructure projects. We look forward to delivering on this initiative and expanding our mandate so we can get more infrastructure built faster and increase Indigenous economic partnership,” said CIB’s CEO Ehren Cory.

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Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) announced a $100-million loan participation agreement with the First Nations Bank of Canada. (L to R): FNBC CEO Bill Lomax and CIB CEO Ehren Cory.

The CIB also announced a $100-million loan participation agreement with the First Nations Bank of Canada (FNBC)—FNBC is the largest Indigenous-owned and -led financial institution in Canada. More than 70 per cent of FNBC’s employees are Indigenous, and Indigenous clients comprise 90 per cent of its loan portfolio.

“This new loan program will make infrastructure projects in Indigenous Nations and communities more affordable and allow for more opportunities to develop Indigenous-owned lands. By partnering with CIB, we can leverage our expertise in working with Indigenous communities and support new projects in a way we have not seen before,” said Bill Lomax, president and CEO, First Nations Bank of Canada.

“This first-of-its-kind loan product with FNBC catalyzes innovation in the financial services sector and in the Indigenous market. Through this investment, Indigenous communities will work with FNBC to access critical financing to develop much-needed infrastructure in their communities and advance socio-economic reconciliation,” added Cory.

Canada, Manitoba announce funding for Churchill railway upgrades

Indigenous-owned developments are also being supported by government.

The governments of Canada and Manitoba announced a joint investment of up to $60 million to the Arctic Gateway Group (AGG). This combined funding will finish work on the Hudson Bay Railway, start to redevelop the Port of Churchill, and further benefit the communities and sectors of the economy that depend on the Arctic Gateway Group’s operations.

The Arctic Gateway Group—a partnership of 41 First Nation and Bayline communities in Manitoba—were the recipients of a $60-million joint investment from the governments or Canada and Manitoba finish work on the Hudson Bay Railway, the only affordable year-round, all-weather mode of transportation for both passenger and freight traffic to access several northern Manitoba communities.

“The Port of Churchill makes Manitoba a maritime province, and both the port and the rail line offer so much potential when it comes to international trade, energy exports and building out the supply chains that create good jobs in Northern Manitoba,”said Premier Wab Kinew. “Our team fought to repair the rail line because we understand it is the backbone of the northern economy and a vital connection to food and fuel for the families that live there.”

The Hudson Bay Railway is the backbone of the region, serving remote and Indigenous communities, and linking the Port of Churchill as the only deep-water Arctic port connected to the North American surface transportation network. The port is positioned to import and export commodities, critical minerals, and natural resource products through the Arctic and to the world and strengthen Canada’s northern sovereignty and security.

“Our government is proud to partner with Indigenous and Northern communities and the Province of Manitoba to make sure that people and businesses are connected and able to build a prosperous northern economy,” said Dan Vandal, minister for PrairiesCan.

Churchill Mayor Mike Spence, also chair of the Arctic Gateway Group board of directors added: “As an Indigenous and community-owned company, we recognize the importance of this northern infrastructure corridor and will continue to partner with industry, our strategic partners in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut and governments. This is a significant announcement for our region, for Manitoba and for Canada.”

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Financing to help close the infrastructure gap

Since its inception, First Nations Finance Authority has successfully launched short- and long-term loans programs, received multiple rating upgrades, and most importantly, became self-sufficient, no longer relying on any external funding.

FNFA announced it surpassed $2 billion in loans to its members with a 10th debenture that ensures 25 First Nations across Canada can access $356 million to meet community priorities, including childcare services, housing, and job creation.

“Being the first First Nations-led institution in Canada to reach the $2 billion milestone over 10 debentures means that our borrowing members are better able to meet their community’s priorities,” said FNFA President and CEO, Ernie Daniels. “The relending rate to FNFA’s members is 4.28 per cent or, 2.92 per cent below Bank Prime rate, which allows our membership to build much needed infrastructure on/off-reserve today.”

The latest debenture, which took effect in January, will support environmental, social and governance-focused opportunities, including on-reserve housing in Cook’s Ferry, B.C., the construction of a grocery store in Glooscap, N.S., and a wastewater treatment plant upgrade in Mississaugas of Scugog Island, Ont. Since the first debenture was issued in 2014, the projects financed by FNFA have resulted in the creation of nearly 20,000 jobs and an improved quality of life on many reserves.

An example of a project that created jobs and improved quality of life on-reserve is the historic billion-dollar deal in 2020 to sell Clearwater Seafoods to a coalition of Mi’kmaw First Nations, in partnership with Premium Brands of British Columbia. This was the single largest investment in the seafood industry by any Indigenous group in Canada.

“It is evident that FNFA is seen as a trusted financial source for First Nations communities across Canada,” said Chief Warren Tabobondung, Wasauksing First Nation, and FNFA board chair. “I am proud that there are now 356 First Nations scheduled to the First Nations Fiscal Management Act—more than 50 per cent of all First Nations communities in Canada—167 of which have completed the process to become a borrowing member.”

Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum (left); Ontario Minister of Mines George Pirie; and Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse. (Government of Ontario)

First Nations and Ontario One Step Closer to Building All-Season Roads in The Ring of Fire

The Ontario government, Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation signed an agreement to develop community infrastructure projects that could support future development opportunities, including building all-seasons roads to the mineral-rich Ring of Fire region.

“I want to commend Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum and Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse for their vision and commitment to building stronger communities,” said George Pirie, Minister of Mines. “Their leadership and dedication to making progress on these important infrastructure projects is helping to build the corridor to prosperity. These roads would enhance the well-being and livelihoods of their communities by improving access to critical goods and services. The road network would also unlock the generational critical minerals potential in the Ring of Fire region.”

The Community Development Agreement commits the province to supporting shovel-ready infrastructure projects. Those could include construction of health and training facilities, recreation centres, commercial buildings, and labour force development programs. These projects would help improve the well-being and readiness of the First Nations to participate fully in the construction of road projects that would connect the Ring of Fire critical mineral deposits with manufacturing hubs in the south.

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“As we move forward to now begin to consider road construction and operations, our commitment remains to be strong stewards of our lands and our environment, in balance with being active partners in growing economic opportunities and benefits for both our communities and other First Nation communities,” said Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum.

“Being at the table in the planning and implementation of road development is key to building a foundation for our future, a future that reflects our community vision, well-being and prosperity,” added Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse.

Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations are currently leading three Environmental Assessments (EA) for the roads that would become the corridor to prosperity.

First Nations and Ontario one step closer to building all-season roads in the Ring of Fire

The Ontario government, Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation signed an agreement to develop community infrastructure projects that could support future development opportunities, including building all-seasons roads to the mineral-rich Ring of Fire region.

“I want to commend Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum and Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse for their vision and commitment to building stronger communities,” said George Pirie, Minister of Mines. “Their leadership and dedication to making progress on these important infrastructure projects is helping to build the corridor to prosperity. These roads would enhance the well-being and livelihoods of their communities by improving access to critical goods and services. The road network would also unlock the generational critical minerals potential in the Ring of Fire region.”

The Community Development Agreement commits the province to supporting shovel-ready infrastructure projects. Those could include construction of health and training facilities, recreation centres, commercial buildings, and labour force development programs. These projects would help improve the well-being and readiness of the First Nations to participate fully in the construction of road projects that would connect the Ring of Fire critical mineral deposits with manufacturing hubs in the south.

“As we move forward to now begin to consider road construction and operations, our commitment remains to be strong stewards of our lands and our environment, in balance with being active partners in growing economic opportunities and benefits for both our communities and other First Nation communities,” said Marten Falls First Nation Chief Bruce Achneepineskum.

“Being at the table in the planning and implementation of road development is key to building a foundation for our future, a future that reflects our community vision, well-being and prosperity,” added Webequie First Nation Chief Cornelius Wabasse.

Marten Falls and Webequie First Nations are currently leading three Environmental Assessments (EA) for the roads that would become the corridor to prosperity.

John Tenpenny is the Editor of ReNew Canada.

[This article originally appeared in the May/June 2024 edition of ReNew Canada]

Featured image: The First Nations Major Projects Coalition led a multi-sector delegation in Ottawa to advocate for the introduction of a National Indigenous Loan Guarantee program. (FNMPC)

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