A US-based libertarian coalition has spent years lobbying the Canadian government to limit the extent to which indigenous communities can push back energy development on their own lands, newly revised strategy documents reveal.
The Atlas Network has partnered with an Ottawa-based think tank – the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (MLI) – which has enlisted pro-industry Indigenous representatives in its campaign to provide “a shield against naysayers”.
Atlas, which has close ties to conservative politicians and oil and gas producers, claimed success in the 2018 and 2020 reports, saying its partner was able to discourage the Canadian government from backing a Nations Declaration which would ensure greater involvement of indigenous communities.
Canada’s Parliament eventually passed the legislation to start implementing the declaration in 2021, but observers say the government has made little progress in moving it forward.
Meanwhile, Indigenous groups linked to the MLI campaign, including the Indian Resource Council, continue to appear at conferences, testify before federal committees and be quoted in mainstream media arguing that Indigenous prosperity is virtually impossible without oil and gas.
Hayden King, executive director of a Toronto-based Indigenous public policy think tank, the Yellowhead Institute, called the campaign “a contemporary expression of the kind of imperialism that Indigenous peoples have faced here for many, many years. “.
MLI directed questions about the reports to the Atlas Network, which did not respond to requests for comment.
The Atlas Network calls itself a “global movement for freedom” 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 address from Donald Trump in April. Their influence on American politics includes leading campaigns to make Americans doubt the reality of human-caused climate change.
Atlas members helped influence the opinions of Republican politicians, including George W Bush. The Arlington, Virginia-based organization — which received more than $1 million from oil company ExxonMobil through 2012 and $745,000 from foundations linked to the Koch brothers through 2018, according to watchdog groups — also exerted a significant influence on conservative politics in the UK and Latin America.
Bob Neubauer, a researcher with a Canadian oil and gas monitoring organization known as the Corporate Mapping Project, said Atlas includes “a very significant number of the right-wing think tanks and advocacy organizations most influential on the planet.
“That should make people nervous,” he added.
Atlas and MLI have for years pushed back against attempts by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to bring Canadian laws into line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a declaration that Canada endorsed more ten years old. It 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 a climate research organization called DeSmog.
Indeed, the treaty contains clauses affirming the sovereignty of indigenous peoples over territories on which they have lived for thousands of years. Its implementation would potentially make it more difficult for extractive companies to operate in these territories. At stake, the report explains, was Canada’s “monumental reserves of natural gas, hydroelectricity, potash, uranium, petroleum and other natural resources.”
In recent years, the Atlas Network has deepened its ties with Canada, creating a Center for the United States and Canada that “works with local civil society organizations on both sides of the border to create of the role of free enterprise and individual liberty,” according to its website.
MLI is one of approximately twelve partner organizations of the Atlas Network in Canada. It is a relatively new organization, formed only in 2010, but its board members and advisers come from some of the biggest lobbying, legal and financial firms in the country.
In 2018, the Atlas Network created a 13-page report on a “Think Tank Impact Case Study” on a campaign run by MLI titled “Indigenous Canada and the Economy Project.” natural resources”. Atlas wanted to highlight this project in a training academy for its partners around the world.
The report is no longer accessible on the Atlas Network website but was retrieved by DeSmog from an Internet archive called the Wayback Machine.
“The Macdonald-Laurier Institute, its staff, and authors affiliated with the Indigenous Canada and the Economics of Natural Resources project were the only entities that worked on this project,” MLI spokesperson Brett wrote. Byers, in an email.
“Questions regarding the content, nature or interpretation of a report released by the Atlas Network are best directed to the Atlas Network,” he added. The Atlas Network did not respond to a detailed list of questions about its involvement.
The report claims that this project was initiated “at the request of the Assembly of First Nations”, a national advocacy group for Canada’s Indigenous peoples, who “saw the potential of the natural resource economy as a major driver of transforming indigenous opportunities”. The Assembly did not respond to a media request asking if this is accurate.
The Atlas report notes that one of the main goals of this collaboration was to remove barriers to the production of fossil fuels. He explains that when political momentum began to build in 2016 for Canada to implement the UN declaration, it “worried the team” at MLI.
Indeed, the UN declaration contains a clause stating that indigenous peoples have the right to give “their free, prior and informed consent” before governments make decisions that could have a significant material impact on their traditional territories.
Some legal experts see it as a reasonable way to ensure that indigenous communities are equal partners in decision-making. But the MLI and the Atlas Network seemed to interpret this to mean that these communities could effectively veto new pipelines, fracking operations and other resource extraction projects.
“This provision, while well-intentioned, would have allowed even the most marginalized groups to veto improvement projects at the expense of entire communities,” Atlas argued.
“It is difficult to overstate the legal and economic disruption that may have resulted from such a move,” the report continues.
MLI, with support from Atlas, has launched “a sophisticated communication and outreach strategy to persuade government, business and Indigenous communities of the dangers of fully adopting UNDRIP,” the report says. .
The first successes came in November, when then-Canadian Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation, “offered her support for the MLI’s point of view”. The report referred to a 2016 speech in which she said full implementation of UNDRIP would be “unachievable”, casting doubt on the government’s commitment.
“MLI experts are still in regular communication with MPs, ministers and government officials,” Byers wrote. Wilson-Raybould did not respond to a media request.
Meanwhile, a member of an opposition party introduced a new bill intended to enshrine UNDRIP in law. This effort slowly gained momentum and gained political support, but when the bill found its way to the Senate of Canada for approval in 2019, an MLI researcher named Dwight Newman submitted written comments according to which the inclusion of ‘free, prior and informed consent’ in legislation could ‘have enormous implications for Canada’.
“The bill was ultimately defeated,” Atlas explains on its website.
“There might 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 essentially filibustered the legislation.” And one of the senators charged with filibuster, Don Plett, quoted an MLI report at length during a Senate debate on UNDRIP.
This was considered a major victory by Atlas, who appears to have funded the campaign. “Atlas Network supported this initiative with a Poverty and Freedom grant,” notes a 2020 document on the Atlas website. This document also identified First Nations allies “working directly” on the campaign, such as the Indian Resource Council and the First Nations Major Projects Coalition.
“This is incorrect,” wrote a spokesperson for the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, referring to 2018 testimony its vice president gave in support of UNDRIP.
When the Trudeau government tried once again to implement the UN declaration in 2021, Indian Resource Council Chairman Stephen Buffalo told a Senate standing committee that there should be language in legislation preventing “special interest groups” from being able to “weaponize” the declaration of blocking new pipelines.
“Whether or not you support the oil and gas industry, the 131 nations of the Indian Resource Council of Canada have the right to develop their resources as they see fit,” he said. The organization did not respond to a media request.
The Trudeau government successfully passed a bill beginning implementation of the declaration in June 2021. But the process has been slow since then. “There’s been very little progress,” King said. “It’s stuck in the administrative quagmire.
The Atlas network seems to be entering a new phase of advocacy. At a conference in Guatemala earlier this year, leaders of “freedom-minded organizations, many of which are partners of the Atlas Network”, came together to “refine their plans for the coming year”.
At the invitation-only event, MLI “hosted a project to improve opportunities for indigenous people,” according to a conference report by Atlas Network.
MLI wanted to apply what it learned in Canada globally. “The purpose of the project would be to promote Indigenous economic development around the world,” Byers wrote.
This story is a collaboration between Floodlight, The Narwhal and The Guardian.