It has taken a great deal of time to secure the constitutional, political and legal power needed to protect Aboriginal interests, writes Coates and Holroyd for Inside Policy.

By Ken Coates and Carin Holroyd, March 26, 2018.

Canadians are slowly getting used to the re-empowerment of Indigenous people and their governments.  It has taken a great deal of time to secure the constitutional, political and legal power needed to protect Aboriginal interests.  Less noticed is the degree to which Indigenous rights have become a global issue.

Taiwan is a case in point. The Republic of China (Taiwan) officially recognized 16 Indigenous groups.  Over half a million Indigenous people live primarily in the mountainous lands on the eastern backbone of the island.  The first groups were recognized by the pre-World War II Japanese-run colonial government, with additional groups being officially added in the early 21st century.

Acknowledgement brought social and cultural assistance, but it did not immediately ensure Indigenous peoples a significant place in the Taiwanese economy.  But that has recently changed. The Indigenous Peoples Basic Law (2005, amended in 2015) has UNDRIP-like assurances of Indigenous language and cultural authority, protection for tribal governance and requirements for substantial government control.  

The Basic Law also includes clear commitments on resource use. Article 20 provided recognition of “Indigenous peoples’ rights to land and natural resources.” Article 21 required governments or private parties engaged in land development or other activities to “consult and obtain consent” by Indigenous peoples, including participation and sharing benefits. This is an impressive commitment, coming close to the “free, prior and informed consent” as outlined in UNDRIP.

But even promising commitments run into roadblocks, as the Trudeau government has since discovered.  So it has been in Taiwan. In 2017, thousands of Indigenous peoples, environmentalists and their supporters took to the streets to demand greater Indigenous control over existing and new mining projects.  Pushed by these protests, the Taiwan government moved to amend the Mining Act to give the authorities the right to reject mining renewals and otherwise control development activities. Opponents objected to the amendment, however, believing that mining companies with existing licenses could use the legislation to avoid further scrutiny.

The Taiwanese cabinet has proposed connecting the Mining Act to the Indigenous Peoples Basic Act, to re-enforce Indigenous authority.  But as one activist, Hsieh Meng-yu, said, “The government only respects Aborigines when it needs them to perform in big events, but as for their rights to land and natural resources, it can find all kinds of excuses to exploit their property.” In this regard, Taiwan has discovered the need to build bridges between the principles of inclusion and Indigenous recognition and the practicalities of serving both Indigenous and broader economic interests.  Canada often finds itself in the same situation.

Strengthening Indigenous rights has produced better and more appropriate resource development agreements and not intractable Aboriginal resistance.  Partnership on major developments and infrastructure is not a distant possibility; it is a current reality. Indigenous peoples have been negotiating effectively with resource companies and governments, securing more jobs and business opportunities, and steadily increasing their role in environmental oversight and project planning.  

This re-empowerment of Indigenous peoples has vital international dimensions.  Ottawa recently announced the formation of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise (CORE) to monitor the work of Canadian resource companies overseas. This comes at a time when Indigenous groups globally are far more assertive about their rights and needs, and non-governmental organizations draw world attention to examples of abuse or conflict over development.

The CORE initiative will, if properly done, re-enforce Canada’s international reputation for social justice and support for Indigenous peoples, and promote even more effective business relationships between Canadian firms and Indigenous communities.

The Taiwanese and Canadian developments are part of a growing international trend. Native Americans have developed strong partnerships with resource firms, notably in Alaskan mines and western oil and gas fields.  Australian firms have long collaborated with Canadian companies and have comparable approaches to working with Indigenous communities. Sami peoples in Scandinavia are facing considerable pressure to accept resource projects in their territories and are interested in the relative effectiveness of Canadian practices.  

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made collaboration with Indigenous peoples a centre-piece of his government’s agenda.  But he has discovered, as have the Taiwanese authorities, that it takes good will and commitment to transform pronouncements about Indigenous recognition into consistent action and real Indigenous authority.  Indeed, countries around the world are discovering that it’s not so easy to truly share power with Indigenous authorities on major economic and development files.

The first step is a major advance over the colonial and paternalistic policies of recent years.  The next step, one reflecting true partnership with Indigenous peoples, requires a continued high level of commitment and collaboration.

Ken Coates is a Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation, Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy and Munk Senior Fellow, Macdonald-Laurier Institute.  Carin Holroyd is Associate Professor, University of Saskatchewan and Distinguished Senior Fellow, Asia Pacific Foundation.