John Desjarlais, the new executive director of the Indigenous Resource Network (IRN), is on a mission to advance Indigenous participation in Canada’s resource economy.
Desjarlais, a professional engineer and member of the Nehinaw Cree Métis community, is inspired by traditional land use, ceremony, and adventure growing up on the Saskatchewan River Delta. He’s pushing back against a proposed oil and gas sector emissions cap that would sideline many Indigenous businesses and workers – putting billions of dollars in revenue and equity at risk.
“I don’t know if Indigenous communities or their economic interest were ever meaningfully involved in those decisions, and that’s problematic,” said Desjarlais.
“That process really frustrates a lot of Indigenous groups. There’s too much policy development that has far sweeping negative impacts. What is the economic and socio-economic impact of that?”
Launched in 2020, the IRN provides advocacy for Indigenous workers, business owners and leaders who support Indigenous engagement and participation in the resource sector. Prior to taking on the role of executive director in March, Desjarlais acted as the organization’s board chair.
He grew up hunting, fishing, and trapping around the isolated community of Cumberland House in northern Saskatchewan.
Taking after his father, Desjarlais began his career in Saskatchewan’s mining industry. He rose through the ranks at Cameco and developed a passion for continuing education. He holds an MBA and is currently working on a master’s degree in governance and entrepreneurship in northern and Indigenous areas through the University of Saskatchewan. He holds multiple professional certificates.
“Non-Indigenous Canadians would be well served to know that Indigenous people are really on the path to self-determination,” he said.
“A big piece of that is developing the infrastructure and resources to support a lot of our socioeconomic needs. We want to be involved in the oil and gas sector. Not just boots on the ground, but the C-suite.”
In 2022, the IRN launched its Ownership Changes Everything campaign, calling on the federal government to establish a national Indigenous guaranteed loan program for resource projects.
The idea is to guarantee loans at competitive rates to Indigenous communities, with no discrimination based on the type of project. The intent is to have a federal program that emulates programs in Alberta and Saskatchewan that are experiencing success with Indigenous participation.
There was no support for the program in the recent federal budget. Desjarlais says the IRN will continue to advocate for Indigenous communities to have the access to capital to invest in resource projects.
Indigenous groups support an energy transformation, he said, noting climate issues are a global matter that need thoughtful discussion. He is frustrated with policy that is developed for – not by – Indigenous people.
“Do we produce the most sustainable, the most environmentally responsible energy in the world?” he said. “I’d like to think so, and Indigenous people are progressively becoming more part of that development.”
A Government of Canada discussion paper says oil and gas is an important and growing employer of Indigenous people. Since 2014, Indigenous employment in Canada’s oil and gas sector has increased by more than 20 per cent, reaching an estimated 10,400 jobs in 2020, it said.
Spending with Indigenous-owned businesses is also rising. Oil sands producers have spent more than $5.9 billion with Indigenous businesses since 2017. The Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project alone spent more than $2 billion with Indigenous companies in 2022.
Together, three projects – the Trans Mountain Expansion, LNG Canada, and Coastal GasLink – have spent approximately $9 billion with Indigenous-owned and local businesses.
In 2022, a total of 39 Indigenous communities in Alberta and B.C. launched ownership of oil and gas pipelines. In Alberta, 23 Indigenous communities now hold nearly 12 per cent ownership of seven operating Enbridge oil sands pipelines. In B.C., 16 Indigenous communities will become 10 per cent owners of the Coastal GasLink pipeline when it is complete.