When politicians say they want to keep our resources in the ground, and then say in the next breath they want to improve conditions of First Nation communities, someone needs to call them out on the contradiction, writes Joseph Quesnel. 

By Joseph Quesnel, December 3, 2019

Now that the dust has settled from the election, the newly re-elected Liberal government will have to take stock of this election campaign and what issues were missed. For Indigenous communities, much was lost or distorted.

When a group called Climate Justice Edmonton attempted to hold a “climate strike” in Edmonton on the Friday before election day involving famed environmental activist Greta Thunberg, they might not have expected a stern reminder from a group called the Indian Resource Council. After all, climate activists believe they are the ones who speak for First Nations’ interests.

The IRC, however, reminded the environmentalist group that Indigenous participation in the energy sector is an exercise in Indigenous self-determination and economic development. First Nations and Métis communities have the right to engage with and partner with resource companies in the interests of their members.

Some environmentalist groups act as “fair weather friends” with Indigenous communities, if the communities oppose what they oppose. But Indigenous people are realists and pragmatists, realizing that in the remote regions they occupy, sometimes the resource sector is the only game in town. So, they work with that reality.

They are certainly not doormats to developers. They insist, in no uncertain terms, on strong protections for the environment when assessing resource projects. They have long traditions of environmental stewardship. They don’t need urban-based activists swooping down and telling Indigenous peoples what they should or should not do on their lands.

Some First Nation activists are noting this trend of environmentalists trying to influence and sometimes infiltrate their communities with one agenda in mind. They have even coined a term for it: eco-colonialism. Like the colonial governments and missionaries of old, some environmentalist groups come in and tell people on reserves how to think about their own territories and economic options.

Indigenous businessman and author Calvin Helin and other prominent Indigenous movers and shakers such as prominent Cree business leader Blaine Favel have spoken out against the eco-colonialism they see happening in their communities. This discussion about climate change—which is often falsely conflated with Indigenous rights within the eco-colonialism narrative—will inevitably impact Indigenous communities.

During the election debates, the focus was on the duty to consult and the right to build pipelines—which was good—but the discussion mainly focused on what provinces and territories can do to obstruct them and the need for federal leadership. First Nations were mainly treated as bystanders in the discussion, or at worst, props by the parties.

Indeed, in the debates, some candidates almost weaponized the duty to consult to shut down the debate on certain pipelines, rather than realize the duty to consult is mostly about establishing a good faith relationship between Indigenous communities and resource companies to address their legitimate concerns. If done right, it can facilitate these projects, not obstruct them.

If the election campaign had properly included First Nation peoples—especially Indigenous groups like the IRC and others who are committed to responsible Indigenous economic development—Canadians would have discovered that the discussion about climate change and pipeline projects affects First Nation and Métis communities directly. The energy sector and the mining industry, for example, are some of the largest private sector employers of Indigenous people in this country. The average wage of Indigenous people employed in resource industries is more than double the average across all industries, so it matters when these jobs disappear.

Recently, Sean Speer, a Munk senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, published a ground-breaking study that examined the “forgotten people and places” in the new Canadian economy. His research shows that mainly males without post-secondary degrees are falling behind. This defines many of the Indigenous people in communities who are entering the trades to service the resource sector. They are being doubly forgotten.

When some candidates during the campaign declared that they will kill the Trans-Mountain pipeline expansion project, did they consider the impact that would have on the 43 First Nation communities along the proposed route that have signed benefit agreements? These communities cannot afford to squander these opportunities.

Politicians and activists need to understand how hardline positions on resource development will affect their professed commitments to improving Indigenous well-being. When politicians say they want to keep our resources in the ground, and then say in the next breath they want to improve conditions of First Nation communities, someone needs to call them out on the contradiction. That is what many Indigenous people would do, if they were included in this election debate rather than being left on the periphery.

Joseph Quesnel is a Métis and program manager of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy (ACNRE) project.

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