A recent flurry of positive news about co-operation can help change the narrative that Indigenous peoples are always opposed to resource development, but Canada has work to do ensure they are properly included in decision making.

By Ken S. Coates, June 27, 2016

There is ample evidence that Indigenous peoples are opting into the Canadian natural resource economy. This month, Cameco and Arvena, two uranium mining companies active in Saskatchewan, completed major collaboration agreements with Black Lake, Fond de Lac, Hatchet Lake, Stony Rapids, Wollaston Lake, Uranium City and Camsell Portage, ushering in an era of enhanced cooperation.  The Indian Resource Council, which promotes Indigenous engagement in the oil and gas sector, is planning a major conference in Fall 2016, designed to urge greater attention to Aboriginal participation.

Long shunted to the sidelines of resource development, and building on two decades of rapidly expanding participation, First Nations, Métis and Inuit people in Canada are making real inroads into the resource economy. They are determined to do even more.

They are determined to do even more.

This story, of course, runs counter to the standard narrative. If there is a contemporary image of Indigenous peoples and natural resource development, it is one of opposition and conflict. There is good reason for this.  The dozens of rallies held under the banner of Idle No More expressed strong concerns about environmental protection and resource use. Protests about pipelines, fracking and major resource projects across the country regularly attract large contingents of Aboriginal people. Such prominent representatives as Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs have articulated a strong and consistent critique of resource development and pipelines.

Critics are much better known than the leaders of Thunderchild First Nation and Onion Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan or the strongly entrepreneurial Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation of Old Crow in the Yukon. And who outside Indigenous circles knows much about the over 250 Aboriginal economic development corporations currently operating across the country? There are First Nations with large oil and gas operations on and off their reserves, and others who have reached mutually beneficial agreements with pipeline companies and other resource firms.

No community symbolizes the apparent dissonance better than Fort Chipewyan in northern Alberta. Chief Allen Adam of the Athabasca Fort Chipewyan First Nation is an articulate and influential critic of oil sands development and has shared the stage with David Suzuki, Neil Young and others. But even as members raise serious doubts about resource development and worry about environmental impacts, the community’s holding company, Acden, manages several hundred million dollars per year in contracts from resource companies. The First Nation has considered this apparent contradiction at great length, seeking both to minimize the environmental impact of resource development while producing much-needed jobs and business opportunities for community members.

Forty years ago, resource development occurred with remarkably little reference to Indigenous peoples. They were not consulted. The communities received little, if any, compensation for major socio-economic and environmental disruptions.  Companies hired and trained few Indigenous employees. There were only a handful of Aboriginal companies active in the sector.

And then Indigenous people went to court. Over a span of more than 20 years, Indigenous claimants won a series of major Supreme Court decisions, highlighted by the 2004 Haida and Taku decisions and re-enforced by the 2014 Tsilhqot’in judgment. With the election of the Trudeau Liberal government and its firm commitment to the United Nations Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, it became clear that Aboriginal communities have secured real and sustained authority in the resource sector.

What a difference a few decades and real political and legal power can make.  Companies, reflecting the 21st century approach to corporate social responsibility, reached out to Indigenous communities. The “duty to consult and accommodate” requirements included in the Haida and Taku decisions increased Aboriginal authority and led to new collaboration and impact and benefit agreements.  Indigenous communities previously ignored along the development frontier found themselves courted by companies eager to get them engaged with the projects.

The new arrangements included tens of millions of dollars in direct payments, employment and training programs for Indigenous workers, and preferential contracting arrangements for Aboriginal-owned companies. The major pipelines, the source of much controversy, have already generated substantial agreements between project proponents and Indigenous communities. Aboriginal entrepreneurs established hundreds of service and supply companies. Resource companies hired many Aboriginal workers. In a growing number of instances, Aboriginal communities and companies took out equity positions in the resource projects, including substantial oil and gas investments and proposed equity stakes in new pipelines.

Aboriginal entrepreneurs established hundreds of service and supply companies.

In many respects, the approach to resource development of Aboriginal communities mirrors that of non-Indigenous peoples.  Canadians at large show the same divided opinions, with large numbers opposing the Energy East pipeline, Kinder Morgan’s West Coast terminal, and Enbridge’s bitumen pipeline through northern British Columbia, while many others support oil and gas exploration and pipeline development. Some First Nations are strongly opposed to pipeline construction through their territories; a number of cities in central Canada have voiced similar complaints about Energy East. Conversely and like many Indigenous communities, provincial, territorial and federal governments see resource development revenues as central to their financial futures.

The new development realities in Canada are quite clear. Some First Nations strongly oppose development. Others favour major projects in which they have a fair and equitable stake. All Aboriginal communities have a strong commitment to environmental protection and remediation, although they differ significantly in how they want their concerns addressed. Indigenous peoples also understand their legal rights and have become adept in using this authority to secure substantial agreements from corporations and governments.

As Canada contemplates the future of resource development, the country needs to make fundamental adjustments to its approach. Indigenous peoples have to be involved in project evaluation and approvals from the outset and not as latter day participants in the process. Complete and unanimous agreement from Indigenous peoples is as unlikely as it is among the general Canadian population. Difficult political decisions will therefore be required on pipelines and major project approvals, with Indigenous communities likely to be involved on both sides of the debate.

Complete and unanimous agreement from Indigenous peoples is as unlikely as it is among the general Canadian population.

Government action is essential. A coordinated effort by federal and provincial governments and Indigenous peoples is required.  Clarification of Indigenous rights and a definition of Aboriginal roles in the review and evaluation processes are needed. The starting point is simple. Indigenous peoples, by right of law and political necessity, must have a central, early stage role. The new systems must find the delicate balance between protecting the right of governments to govern while recognizing the unique status of Indigenous communities. Any attempt to marginalize Indigenous peoples or to put them in a subordinate role in decision-making processes will almost inevitably result in greater conflict and delays.

There are solutions available. The new decision-making structures and processes must be co-created with Indigenous peoples, not decided behind closed doors by government. (There is, incidentally, considerable evidence that the former approach is being taken, particularly by the Government of Canada.) If there is substantial and mutually beneficial participation in the project management process, Indigenous communities are likely to be cautiously active participants in resource development and, increasingly, equity owners in many of the projects.

The choice is fairly simple. Canada must select the approach that reflects the 21st century legal and political realities of Indigenous rights and the fact that a substantial number of Aboriginal people and communities are open to active engagement in resource development.

Ken Coates is a Senior Fellow, Macdonald-Laurier Institute, and the author of a recent report for the Indian Resource Council on First Nations involvement in the Western Canadian resource economy.   

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