First Nations

How a conservative U.S. network undermined Indigenous energy rights in Canada

Internal documents explain why oil and gas interests would benefit from a key Indigenous declaration being ‘defeated’

This story is a collaboration between FloodlightThe Narwhal and the Guardian.

A U.S.-based libertarian coalition has spent years pressuring the Canadian government to limit how much Indigenous communities can push back on energy development on their own land, newly reviewed strategy documents reveal.

The Atlas Network partnered with an Ottawa-based think tank — the Macdonald-Laurier Institute — which enlisted pro-industry Indigenous representatives in its campaign to provide “a shield against opponents.”

Atlas, which has deep ties to conservative politicians and oil and gas producers, claimed success in reports in 2018 and 2020, arguing its partner was able to discourage the Canadian government from supporting a United Nations declaration that would ensure greater involvement by Indigenous communities.

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The Canadian Parliament did eventually pass the legislation to begin implementing the declaration in 2021, but observers say the government has made little progress to move it forward.

Meanwhile, Indigenous groups linked to the Macdonald-Laurier Institutes’s campaign — including the Indian Resource Council — continue to appear at conferences, testify to federal committees and get quoted in major media outlets to push the view that Indigenous prosperity is virtually impossible without oil and gas.

Wet'suwet'en - Coastal GasLink standoff: Land defenders fortify a blockade near the Wedzin Kwa (Morice) River as RCMP units advance deeper into the territory
Land defenders fortify a blockade near the Wedzin Kwa (Morice) River as RCMP units advance deeper into Wet’suwet’en territory in 2021. Photo: Amber Bracken / The Narwhal

Hayden King, executive director of the Toronto-based Indigenous public policy think tank Yellowhead Institute, called the campaign “a contemporary expression of the type of imperialism that Indigenous peoples have been dealing with here for many, many years.”

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute directed questions about the reports to the Atlas Network, which did not respond to requests for comment.

The Atlas Network calls itself a “worldwide freedom movement” and has nearly 500 partners, including think tanks like the Manhattan Institute. Other powerful partners include the Cato Institute, a think tank co-founded by Charles Koch in 1977, as well as the Heritage Foundation, which hosted a keynote speech by Donald Trump in April. Their influence on U.S. politics includes leading campaigns to make Americans doubt if human-caused climate change is real.

Atlas members have helped influence the views of Republican politicians, including George W. Bush. The Arlington, Virginia-based organization — which received more than US$1 million from the oil company ExxonMobil through 2012 and US$745,000 from foundations linked to the Koch brothers through 2018, according to watchdog groups — has also exerted significant influence on conservative politics in the U.K. and Latin America.

Bob Neubauer, a researcher with a Canadian oil and gas watchdog organization known as the Corporate Mapping Project, said Atlas includes “a very significant number of the most influential right-wing think tanks and advocacy organizations on the planet.”

“It should make people nervous,” he added.

Traditional chiefs from the Heilsuk First Nation in Bella Bella, BC, lead a protest rally with a dance in Kitimat, BC, Tuesday, August 31, 2010.
Traditional chiefs from Heiltsuk First Nation in 2010 at a rally to protest Enbridge’s failed Northern Gateway proposal, which would have seen a bitumen pipeline running from the Alberta oilsands to Kitimat, B.C. Photo: Robin Rowland / The Canadian Press

Atlas and the Macdonald-Laurier Institute have for years been pushing back against attempts by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to align Canadian laws with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a declaration Canada endorsed more than a decade ago. That could have codified Indigenous rights to reject pipelines or drilling, the Atlas Network feared, according to their strategy documents, which were shared with Floodlight by an investigative climate research organization called DeSmog.

That’s because the treaty contains clauses affirming Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty over territories they’ve lived on for thousands of years. Implementing it would potentially make it harder for extraction companies to operate on those territories. At stake, the report explains, were Canada’s “monumental reserves of natural gas, hydroelectricity, potash, uranium, oil and other natural resources.”

In recent years the Atlas Network has deepened its connections to Canada, setting up a Center for U.S. and Canada that “works with local civil society organizations on both sides of the border to create positive perceptions of the role of free enterprise and individual liberty,” according to its website.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is one of roughly a dozen Atlas Network partner organizations in Canada. It’s a relatively new organization, formed only in 2010, but its board members and advisors come from some of the top lobbying, legal and financial firms in the country.

In 2018, the Atlas Network created a 13-page “think tank impact case study” report about a campaign being led by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute called the “Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy Project.” Atlas wanted to highlight this project at a training academy for its partners around the world.

Ten-year-old Ta'kaiya Blaney, of the Sliammon First Nation, speaks during a signing ceremony for a declaration opposing a crude oil pipeline and tanker expansion in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday December 1, 2011.
Ten-year-old Ta’kaiya Blaney, of the Sliammon First Nation, speaks during a signing ceremony for a declaration opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline in 2011. Photo: Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

The report is no longer accessible on the Atlas Network website but was recovered by DeSmog on an internet archive called the Wayback Machine.

“The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, its staff, and the authors affiliated with the Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project were the only entities that worked on that project,” institute spokesperson Brett Byers wrote in an email.

“Questions regarding the content, nature or interpretation of a report published by the Atlas Network are better directed toward the Atlas Network,” he added. The Atlas Network didn’t respond to a detailed list of questions about its involvement.

The report claims that this project was started “at the behest of the Assembly of First Nations,” a national advocacy group for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, which “saw potential in the natural resource economy as a major driver of transformation in Indigenous opportunity.” The Assembly didn’t respond to a media request asking if this is accurate.

The Atlas report notes that a prime objective of this collaboration was removing barriers to the production of fossil fuels. It explains that as political momentum began building in 2016 for Canada to implement the UN declaration, this “concerned the team” at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute.

That was because the UN declaration contains a clause stating that Indigenous peoples have the right to give “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” before governments make decisions that could have a large material impact on their traditional territories.

Some legal experts see this as a reasonable way to ensure that Indigenous communities are equal partners in decision-making. But the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and the Atlas Network appeared to interpret this to mean that those communities could effectively veto new oil pipelines, fracking operations and other resource extraction projects.

“It is difficult to overstate the legal and economic disruptions that may have followed from such a step,” the report continued.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute with the support of Atlas embarked on “a sophisticated communications and outreach strategy to persuade the government, businesses, and Aboriginal communities on the dangers involved with fully adopting UNDRIP,” the report says.

Early success came that November, when then-Canadian minister of justice Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, “offered her support to [the institute’s] view.” The report was referring to a 2016 speech where she said that fully implementing UNDRIP would be “unworkable,” creating doubt about the government’s commitment.

The Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s “experts are always in regular communication with MPs, ministers and government officials,” Byers wrote. Wilson-Raybould didn’t respond to a media request.

Meanwhile, an opposition party member introduced a new bill meant to enshrine UNDRIP in law. This effort slowly gained momentum and political support, but when the bill ended up before Canada’s Senate for approval in 2019, a Macdonald-Laurier Institute scholar named Dwight Newman submitted written comments that the legislation’s inclusion of “Free, Prior and Informed Consent” could “have enormous implications for Canada.”

“The bill was ultimately defeated,” Atlas explains on its website.

Hayden King of Yellowhead Institute called the campaign against UNDRIP “a contemporary expression of the type of imperialism that Indigenous peoples have been dealing with here for many, many years.” Photo: Yellowhead Institute

“There could be some truth to that,” said King, who is Anishinaabe from Beausoleil First Nation. “The bill died in the Senate because Conservative senators delayed and basically filibustered the legislation.” And one of the senators accused of filibustering, Don Plett, quoted at length from a Macdonald-Laurier Institute report during a Senate debate about UNDRIP.

This was seen as a major victory by Atlas, which appears to have provided funding for the campaign. “Atlas Network supported this initiative with a Poverty & Freedom grant,” notes a 2020 document on the Atlas website. That document also identified First Nations allies “working directly” on the campaign, such as the Indian Resource Council and the First Nations Major Projects Coalition.

“That is inaccurate,” wrote a spokesperson for the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, referencing 2018 testimony its vice-chair gave in support of UNDRIP.

When the Trudeau government made yet another attempt to implement the UN declaration in 2021, Indian Resource Council president Stephen Buffalo told a standing senate committee that there should be language in the legislation preventing “special-interest groups” from being able to “weaponize” the declaration to block new pipelines.

“Whether or not you support the oil and gas industry, it is the right of the 131 nations of the Indian Resource Council of Canada to develop their resources as they see fit,” he said. The organization didn’t respond to a media request.

The Trudeau government successfully passed a bill starting the implementation of the declaration in June 2021. But it’s been a slow process since then. “There’s very little progress,” King said. “It’s bogged down in administrative morass.”

Roxanne Charles-George, of the Semiahmoo First Nation, speaks as protesters opposed to the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project gather at a park just below a construction site at the company's Burnaby Terminal tank farm in Burnaby, B.C., on Wednesday, March 10, 2021.
Roxanne Charles-George, of the Semiahmoo First Nation, at a demonstration against the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project in 2021. Photo: Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

The Atlas Network appears to be moving into a new phase of advocacy. At a conference in Guatemala earlier this year, leaders “from freedom-minded organizations, many of them Atlas Network partners,” gathered to “sharpen their plans for the coming year.”

At this invitation-only event, Macdonald-Laurier Institute “workshopped a project to improve opportunities for native populations,” according to an Atlas Network write-up of the conference.

Macdonald-Laurier Institute wanted to apply what it has learned in Canada globally. “The goal of the project would be to promote Indigenous economic development across the world,” Byers wrote.

Editor’s note: Prior to 2018, The Narwhal was known as DeSmog Canada. It was a separate organization from DeSmog and The Narwhal has no affiliation with DeSmog.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

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