July 19, 2012 - In today's Ottawa Citizen, MLI's Brian Lee Crowley and Ken Coates write an op-ed on First Nations and the future of the natural resource economy. Crowley and Coates say, "This new resource-based wealth could be the key to progress in ending the shameful plight of too many First  Nations people in Canada." The op-ed was republished in the Calgary Herald and Vancouver Sun. It is copied below:

 

Resources are key to success for First Nations

By Brian Lee Crowley and Ken Coates, Ottawa Citizen, July 19, 2012

Regardless of short-term ups and downs, Canada's resource economy is booming  as never before. Industrialization and urbanization, chiefly in Asia, will be  the unstoppable engine driving the world's appetite for our resources. This  should be an opportunity for all Canadians, but especially for many aboriginal  Canadians who inhabit the land surrounding the mining and energy projects  underway or planned across the mid and far North.

In fact this new resource-based wealth could be the key to progress in ending  the shameful plight of too many First Nations people in Canada. To do so,  however, we are going to have to change behaviour and expectations on both sides  of the aboriginal/non-aboriginal divide. Happily, this is far from being a  distant and improbable prospect. We can already discern the new shape of the  relationship.

Indigenous conflict with resource developers is hardly new. Since the arrival  of Europeans, mass evictions, pollution and social turmoil related to resource  wealth have been facts of indigenous history.

In one of the most profound changes in recent Canadian history, however,  aboriginal people are now poised both to shape and capitalize on the  wealth-producing possibilities of resource extraction.

We don't appreciate the positive significance of what has happened because  too many of us are still stuck in the politics of confrontation of the 1980s and  1990s. Then indigenous leaders fought for political attention, constitutional  guarantees, redress of historical grievances, land claims settlements,  self-government and resource rights. That generation of indigenous leaders was  hugely successful, and changed the country in the process.

Moreover, the Supreme Court has decreed governments and mining companies have  a duty to consult aboriginal people before proceeding with development projects.  Like it or not, indigenous peoples will henceforth be major players in Canada's  resource economy.

In other words, Canada has said "yes" to many of the demands of indigenous  Canadians.

But the most important — and subtlest — change has taken place inside  aboriginal communities. A new generation of leaders preoccupied with economic  progress has emerged. First Nations and Inuit communities across the country  have set up development corporations, joint venture companies with resource  firms, locally and community-owned businesses, and consulting operations.  Hundreds of aboriginal students each year attend college and university  programs, studying everything from business to engineering, the mining trades  and environmental remediation. Thousands of aboriginal people now work in the  resource sector, with the numbers swelling yearly.

The new realities have also penetrated the corporate boardrooms of the land.  Companies are increasingly moving beyond minimum legal requirements, developing  substantial partnerships with First Nations and Inuit communities, realizing  that such actions are not feel-good window-dressing but sound business practice.  Companies that engage thoughtfully and respectfully with indigenous communities  and governments can speed up their projects, secure a trainable local workforce,  improve company-community relationships, collaborate on environmental protection  and get more local economic impact from resource development. Significantly, the  Canadian Council of Chief Executives recently called on governments in Canada to  get with the program.

While confrontations and difficulties are still common — just think the Ring  of Fire in northern Ontario and the Enbridge Pipeline — there are many more  instances of indigenous co-operation with resource companies. Blockades may be  news, but the new joint ventures, long-term training programs and successful  indigenous businesses are what will reshape our common future. Efforts by Suncor  and Syncrude in the oilsands, Cameco in Saskatchewan, the innovative diamond  mine collaborations in the Northwest Territories and the path-setting Baffinland  project in Nunavut will ultimately alter Canadians' view of indigenous  participation in the resource sector.

The fundamentals of indigenous political and economic life have started to  shift. So much remains to be done to alleviate poverty, community dysfunction  and suffering, and cultural and language loss, though, that many of us overlook  what First Nations and Inuit people have, in partnership with Canada,  accomplished in recent decades.

Resource issues played a significant role in the debates leading up to this  week's Assembly of First Nations elections. All of the contenders for national  chief made it clear that they expected First Nations people to get better  returns from future resource development. The election, however, will likely  only change the speed, not the trajectory, of indigenous engagement with mining  and energy projects. Aboriginal leaders have started to learn to take "yes" for  an answer; Canadian governments and businesses are prepared to work with First  Nations and Inuit governments and communities as partners in development.

Our new-found resource wealth confronts Canada with a rare conjunction of  urgent need and remarkable possibilities. Many (but not all) First Nations and  Inuit communities want to participate in the resource economy, provided that the  terms are right. Many (but not all) indigenous leaders are forging new and  mutually beneficial arrangements with companies to produce jobs for their people  and wealth for their communities. Canadian law compels engagement with  aboriginal peoples and their governments. Economic self-interest surpasses even  these legal obligations.

If First Nations and Inuit leaders stay the course, and continue their  collaborations, if resource companies keep their commitments and sustain their  engagement, and if governments support this unprecedented pattern of  co-operation, the socio-economic calamities that have so long defined Aboriginal  communities could start to give way. For years, indigenous leaders have railed  against the soul-destroying elements of welfare dependency and abject poverty.  The 21st-century resource boom holds the potential to set all Canadians,  aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, on a new more promising path.

Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University  of Saskatchewan and Brian Lee Crowley is managing director of the  Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a public policy think-tank in Ottawa.