December 10, 2012 - In a new op-ed for iPolitics today, MLI Managing Director Brian Lee Crowley and University of Saskatchewan Professor Ken Coates say, "Canada's economic future, and the revitalization of aboriginal communities across the country, rest on the ability and willingness of governments and business to capitalize on the impressive collaborative models that already exist." Full op-ed below:


First Nations: a revolution of rising expectations

By Brian Lee Crowley and Ken Coates, iPolitics, December 10, 2012

Last week's scuffle outside the lobby of the House of Commons between aboriginal leaders and the Commons security guards is likely only the opening salvo in what could be a long and protracted battle over Canada's natural resource wealth.

If the government's relationship with aboriginal leaders heads in the direction of greater conflict, much of the prosperity that has been projected for Canada will be at risk. So, too, will be a once-in-a-century opportunity to rebuild the economic and social fabric of aboriginal communities across the country.

Happily, confrontation is not the only direction available. Canada has the tools needed to create constructive resolutions that unlock real opportunity for aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians alike. A simple question remains: will we choose to use these tools?

Aboriginal people are undergoing a revolution of rising expectations — exactly the sort of circumstances that have preceded many political revolutions. After generations of marginalization and neglect, they are frustrated both by the entrenched poverty of their communities and the wealth of the rest of the country.

The rising expectations arise from the remarkable confluence of two major forces in Canadian life — a long string of indigenous constitutional and legal victories and the rising value of Canada's natural resource bounty — that have placed aboriginal Canadians in the vital centre of this country's economic future, with the authority and motivation to insist on getting their share of future development.

The massive sums associated with resource activity fuel these rising hopes and legitimate aspirations among aboriginal communities. You cannot open a newspaper in Canada without reading about hundreds of billions of dollars worth of planned investments to help bring our oil and gas, copper, iron, rare earths and other non-renewable natural resources to world markets.

One of the world's major mining companies projects that more copper will be consumed in the next couple of decades than in the whole of human history to date. China expects to increase its consumption of oil by 5 million barrels a day within a few short years, and that's only half of the increased demand from emerging markets in developing countries alone. Getting a barrel of oil from Alberta to Asia today raises its value by over $20. Multiply that by many millions of barrels of exports over decades and the huge economic benefits available to Canada and those who control our natural resources become clear. Rising populations and affluence in the developing world will drive these trends for a long time to come.

That doesn't mean that every country with a natural resource endowment will benefit. The opportunity is undeniable, but only those countries able to bring natural resources to market quickly and competitively will win the big prizes.

Many of the opportunities are highly perishable. Take Japan's post-Fukushima decision to reduce dependence on nuclear power. That creates a one-time opportunity for nimble suppliers to sign long-term contracts to supply the natural gas that will power new generating capacity. It doesn't matter how much natural gas you have in the ground; if you cannot guarantee to get it to Japan by the time they turn on the turbines, you lose out.

What is in relatively short supply is the capacity to get resources to the right place at the right time at the going price. To do this in Canada now essentially requires aboriginal consent — which gives them enormous bargaining power, as those trying to build an oil pipeline to the West Coast are discovering.

On the legal and constitutional side, few Canadians realize how much circumstances surrounding natural resource development in Canada have changed. Whether it was the 1982 constitutionalization of aboriginal and treaty rights, the courts' increasingly expansive reading of aboriginal and treaty rights in decisions such as Delgamuuk or Marshall, or the Supreme Court's finding of a legal obligation on companies and the Crown to consult and accommodate aboriginal communities affected by natural resource developments, indigenous peoples in Canada have rocketed from being impoverished and powerless to exercising something just shy of a right of veto over natural resource development in their traditional territories.

A new book — Resource Rulers — argues that First Nations are on a huge roll, have won all the major court cases and will continue to do so. We respectfully disagree, at least with the assumption future decisions will continue to broaden and deepen indigenous peoples' power over natural resources. Judges are already showing a reluctance to push the envelope further, seemingly signalling a desire to stick with the status quo they have created, a status quo that gives aboriginal people substantial power but not an absolute veto.

In fact, we think Canada has now reached a sweet spot, where real progress on the ground is possible because government authority and companies' access to capital and development expertise are finally being matched by the very real legal and political rights of aboriginal peoples.

There are two conditions that could convert the current uncertainty and growing aboriginal unease into a productive, mutually beneficial partnership in resource development.

First, aboriginal people will have to shift from the deeply-entrenched legal and political activism that — of necessity — dominated aboriginal relations with the rest of Canada for several generations. They have won most of the legal and political battles that they are going to win; it is now time to capitalize on that hard-won authority. Tools now exist — ranging from duty-to-consult to the terms of modern treaties, which offer aboriginal governments and communities an appropriate and substantial return on resource development.

There also has been a generational shift in aboriginal leadership that demonstrates many aboriginal politicians understand the potency of these new powers and the need to capitalize on resource development to address the real challenges in their communities. That shift is being driven in part by a very young aboriginal population and an electorate less interested in the activism of the past — and focused on creating real opportunities today.

A comparable and permanent shift is required on the non-aboriginal side of the equation. Aboriginal legal and political rights are here to stay. You can dislike these new powers and pine for the 'good old days,' but that's wishful thinking. These rights are a now a fixture in our institutions and any government or company that thinks otherwise will be sorely disappointed.

But here is the good news. These powers are not huge barriers to economic development. Aboriginal people are quite open to using natural resources — with some exceptions, of course — provided that they see tangible and substantial benefits. When governments and companies treat aboriginal peoples as partners in, as opposed to barriers to, development, they have been generally pleased with the results. An empowered, engaged and proactive aboriginal population is a major benefit to this country as a whole.

Can aboriginal and non-aboriginal people find common ground? We are cautiously optimistic. Canada has an increasing number of collaborative arrangements — diamond mines in the Northwest Territories and the development of a huge iron deposit on Baffin Island — that show aboriginal peoples, governments and resource companies can work together.

The recent announcement by the Haisla First Nation of British Columbia that they are willing to talk to Enbridge about the Northern Gateway pipeline is an important sign of aboriginal goodwill and flexibility. Companies, likewise, have increasingly come to the table in a collaborative spirit, realizing that the viability of resource projects rests on mutually beneficial arrangements with indigenous peoples.

Aboriginal people are frustrated — with the Government of Canada, the provinces and the resource companies. One can hardly blame them, given the decades of resistance to welcoming First Nations into planning and development processes. It is surprising, in fact, that so many (but not all) aboriginal communities are open to discussions and negotiations.

But aboriginal leaders and governments have come to an important realization: unlocking the resource potential of this country is the best way to provide their communities with jobs, income, and a real and sustainable partnership in Canada. Canadians have likewise realized that large-scale resource development is the key to national economic success.

The hand aboriginal communities have extended on resource development has to be grasped. Canada's economic future, and the revitalization of aboriginal communities across the country, rest on the ability and willingness of governments and business to capitalize on the impressive collaborative models that already exist.

MLI would not exist without the support of its donors. Please consider making a small contribution today.