Writing in the Vancouver Sun, Macdonald-Laurier Institute Senior Fellow Ken Coates writes that British Columbia is finally embracing First Nations as development partners after years of treating them as either irrelevant or an irritant.Ken Coats

“The wishes of indigenous peoples must now be accommodated”, writes Coates. “The path forward may not be smooth, and uncertainty remains, but First Nations are now active partners in resource development in B.C.”

By Ken Coates, Jan. 26, 2015

Canadians seem to be compelled to put First Nations in simplistic boxes. Their political leaders are corrupt; not true. They stand in the way of Canada’s economic progress; also untrue. They want more government handouts and expect to live off federal support forever; simply not accurate.

In British Columbia, the public battle over the Northern Gateway pipeline and the resistance of some First Nations in the Lower Mainland to the expansion of natural gas pipelines might have created the impression Aboriginal peoples are uniformly opposed to development. A classic battle — First Nations fighting to defend their traditional lands and government supported developers keen to accelerate activity — seems to be unfolding.

However, First Nations’ views on resource development mirror the debate in the province as a whole. British Columbia has a resource-dependent economy, and also perhaps the strongest environmental movement in North America. Some First Nations communities aggressively pursue mining developments in their vicinity, while others oppose such activities.

The wishes of indigenous peoples must now be accommodated. The path forward may not be smooth, and uncertainty remains, but First Nations are now active partners in resource development in B.C.

The last decade has been marked by dramatic changes. The Haida and Taku decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada, which established the national requirements to “consult and accommodate” First Nations about resource projects, were delivered in 2004. The Tsilhqot’in decision of June 2014 changes the rules even more dramatically, recognizing the existence of unresolved Aboriginal title on non-treaty lands, which includes most of British Columbia.

These momentous legal decisions are not the only signs of a major shift. There are, by the count of the Mining Association of Canada, more than 250 collaboration agreements across the country between mining companies and Indigenous communities. The formal impact and benefit agreements encourage Aboriginal participation in the resource sector and have been enhanced by British Columbia’s recognition of the need for resource revenue sharing with indigenous peoples.

First Nations communities across the province are actively engaged in commercial partnerships, joint ventures and even equity investments with resource companies. Aboriginal employment in resource activity is substantial and growing. Commentators spoke decade ago about the possibilities for indigenous engagement with resource development. Now it is a reality.

Because the major resource projects are in the central and northern parts of British Columbia, few people in the province appreciate the extent of indigenous engagement in contemporary development. This has long been the case in the forest sector, in which productive collaborations between First Nations, industry and government are commonplace. The Tahltan, after intense debates, established extensive resource initiatives in the northwest part of the province, as have the Nisga’a. So, too, have the Haisla, who are actively promoting a liquid natural gas plant on their lands near Kitimat.

The First Nations involved in these sectors are, in the main, highly entrepreneurial, well-supported by their communities, concerned about local and regional environments and determined to break the cycle of poverty and marginalization that gripped their societies for several generations. These Aboriginal communities are not pursuing development at all costs but rather they approach possibilities with care, a view to the future, and a realization that financial autonomy and substantial employment empowers and enriches their population.

There is another vital benefit that comes from Aboriginal engagement in the resource economy. Local participation, through employment, business development and revenue sharing, enhances the provincial return from mining, forestry, hydroelectric development, pipeline infrastructure and the like. First Nations participation, therefore, improves economic outcomes for regional centres and the province as a whole. Companies have discovered, sometimes after making major missteps, that collaboration with indigenous communities is essential and, and here perhaps is the showstopper, mutually beneficial.

B.C. operated for decades as though First Nations were either irrelevant or an irritant when it came to resource development. That no longer holds. First Nations make strong, effective and productive partners when economic and environmental conditions are right. Companies, the government of B.C., and the rest of the province are starting to recognize the new realities and even embracing them. British Columbia as a whole will benefit.

Ken Coates is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca) and a panelist at the Premier’s B.C. Natural Resource Forum in Prince George this week. He us the author of a forthcoming research paper on natural resource revenue sharing.