‘The starting point is First Nations, not the ending point’

Calvin Helin wants to build more than a pipeline; he’s building a new model for Indigenous self-reliance

By CEC Staff
Calvin Helin, president and chairman of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., has gained support from Indigenous leaders of the 35 First Nations to build a pipeline from Fort McMurray to Alaska.

Growing up, Calvin Helin saw firsthand how Indigenous communities lived in poverty. It shaped his views on the importance of self-reliance. 

The lawyer, entrepreneur and businessman has spent the past seven years heading up a First Nations-led energy project that he hopes will give Indigenous people far greater financial independence and opportunity.

His project – the Eagle Spirit Energy Corridor – aims to replace the failed Northern Gateway pipeline, which was to connect Alberta’s oilpatch to a port in Kitimat, B.C., and ultimately overseas markets. That project was rejected by Indigenous groups over inadequate consultation, what Helin calls “bare bones” environmental protection and not enough equity for them.

Despite having never built a pipeline, Helin, president and chairman of Eagle Spirit Energy Holdings Ltd., has gained support from Indigenous leaders of the 35 First Nations along the route of the proposed project, a multi-billion-dollar energy corridor across Western Canada. Because of his success, in 2016, Canadian Business named him one of Canada’s Most Powerful Business People. 

“We started off with 35 First Nations groups along our route. To share the wealth of the project and to include other First Nations, we have made offers of equity to over 400 First Nations in Western and Northern Canada,” he says. “It turns the whole model on its head where the starting point is First Nations, not the ending point.

The old way that these projects were done, is that all the decisions were made and Indigenous people were really an afterthought and these big companies went in, I believe, with the view that they could just basically get the governments to sign off on their projects and compel the First Nations to accept whatever was being proposed, rather than going out to the communities and listening to them.”

Under his proposal, First Nations and other Indigenous groups will have control and be majority equity holders in the project.

“We’ve gone out and spent the time to create the environmental model First Nations would support,” he says. “We will have the greenest project on the planet, no question.”

Helin says he was able to gather support for Eagle Spirit in part because his proposal includes “an environmental model that will double the production of oil export from the oil sands, but we will do it in a way where we reduce the CO2 that would be expelled ordinarily by about half of Canada’s total rate.”

That would be achieved, he says, by using an oil recovery process developed by a Canadian company that extracts bitumen while leaving much of the associated carbon dioxide sequestered underground, meaning a much smaller carbon footprint during extraction. The process also uses recirculated water, greatly reducing the need for fresh water.

Helin isn’t only bullish about Eagle Spirit. He argues pipelines will bring long-term employment and be a boon to local economies and are also critical to Canada as a whole because of the importance of the energy sector. 

That’s why he supports other energy projects such as LNG Canada, a natural gas liquefication, storage and loading terminal project that already has 1,000 workers in Kitimat, B.C., and a mini-village of hotels, condos and other development, bringing thousands of jobs.

The proposed Eagle Spirit Energy Corridor comprises two liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipelines and two upgraded bitumen oil pipelines with a capacity of two million barrels a day. Helin says the project will create tens of thousands of jobs over the long term, as well as generating tax revenue and royalties. 

His original plan was to run the pipelines across Alberta to northern B.C., but the federal government’s Bill C-48, which was opposed by Indigenous leaders and Alberta, stops companies from using terminals along B.C.’s north coast to ship oil.

Helin is now looking at a corridor for the oil pipelines from Fort McMurray to Alaska.

He sees an opportunity to help Indigenous people through a project of this magnitude, a natural extension of his life-long drive to empower Indigenous communities.

Helin, who is from the community of Lax Kw’alaams on the northwest coast of B.C., is a member of the Tsimshian Nation and son of a hereditary chief and fisherman. Both of his parents, because of what he called discriminatory provisions in the Indian Act, lost their status, meaning his family was not eligible for government subsidies. 

“We were brought up not receiving any benefits, which was, I think, probably the best thing that could have happened to us, because we were brought up working hard and understanding you’ve got to produce something to survive.”

When he was 12, his family sent him to live with a family in lower mainland B.C., so he could get a good education. He learned what he calls “family Chinese,” went to university to study business and constitutional law and later led Indigenous trade missions to China.

For 20 years, he ran a karate club in east Vancouver and gave free lessons. “It started off for Indigenous kids. I raised money and we brought kids to Germany and Japan, things they never would have had a chance to do.”

Helin’s also written books on Indigenous history as a thank you to his family. He is finishing his fifth book, Dances with Development

He is confident his latest endeavour −− Eagle Spirit −−  will go ahead. He has secured one port in Alaska and is also looking at other options for the oil. 

Still, the project faces new hurdles, such as Bill C-69, which overhauls the assessment process for proposed pipelines. Helin expects to file the assessment application in the new year, but it’s unclear how long that process will take. Once completed, if he gets the green light, Helin and his team will be developing the corridor routes and, he says, going full speed ahead. Helin has also secured his own private funding for the Eagle Spirit pipeline.

But he’s already overcome one of the biggest challenges: getting Indigenous people on board.

Paul Precht, an energy economist who used to work for the Alberta government, says Indigenous communities play a critical role in any resource development and consultation is key.

“I think the idea of having them as stakeholders in the sense of equity participants is a very valuable one,” says Precht, who is also an executive fellow at University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. 

Helin was one of more than 200 Indigenous leaders and people from the finance sector and natural resource development industry who had input into the new Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation, which is being created to help Indigenous communities access capital and technical support so they can invest in natural resource projects and related infrastructure. 

He thinks his plan is the way to move forward to benefit the country, Western provinces and Indigenous people, while being mindful of the climate and oceans. 

“What we’re proposing is a way of providing the smallest pollution footprint and the most efficient way of getting all of our energy to market in a way that lifts up the poorest people in the country.”