First Nations were the ‘first entrepreneurs’

As soon as a natural resource development project gets underway, an outcry can be expected from environmental activists and First Nations members. If we follow the news, we may come to believe that Indigenous Peoples are unanimously opposed to development. But this is not the case.

Many communities have made the shift to natural resource development in the hope of taking control of their destiny. This should not come as a surprise if we consider that the First Nations were Canada’s “first entrepreneurs,” establishing sophisticated trading networks long before Europeans arrived. Nowadays, from the Cree of northern Quebec, active in the mining sector, to the Kw’alaams and Kitselas of British Columbia, working in forestry and natural gas respectively, not to mention the Fort McKay Nation of Alberta, getting rich from oil, the entrepreneurial torch is being carried far and wide.

The Alberta case is indicative of the shift in thinking. In the early 1960s, opposition to oilsands development projects was nearly unanimous in Fort McKay. During the 1970s and 1980s, anti-fur campaigns in Europe impoverished Indigenous people. Many of them then began to look more favourably on oilsands development. Numerous First Nations members were hired by the industry, and they have prospered.

Today, the Fort McKay Nation is heavily involved in oil development. It is no longer dependent on the federal government: in the past few years, only five per cent of Fort McKay’s revenues have come from federal transfers. Its residents’ average after-tax income is even higher than that of other Albertans, which is no small matter! The community recently acquired, jointly with another nation, majority ownership of oil infrastructure on its territory, worth half a billion dollars.

Reconciliation between First Nations and the rest of Canada has been on the agenda since 2008, with the launch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. This reconciliation obviously requires fuller recognition of the rights of Indigenous people and improvements in public policy. But it also needs to be economic. It will only truly be achieved when First Nations have retaken control of their destiny and have broken free of the vicious circle of government dependency.

For this to happen, First Nations members need to be able to work in exchange for good wages, and their leaders must have access to stable sources of funding to meet their communities’ needs. For First Nations located far from major centres, the solution lies in natural resource development.

Sadly, many obstacles remain, despite the goodwill of the key players. Last year, the Northern Gateway pipeline project was axed by the federal government, which chose to end consultations even though 31 First Nations and Métis communities had negotiated jobs and contracts as well as obtaining shares in the project. Then, this year, a Federal Court of Appeal ruling imperilled the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion project, despite the fact that 43 nations had signed agreements with pipeline owner Kinder Morgan.

These recent cancellations of major projects deprive First Nations — and many other Canadians — of substantial spinoffs as well as harming the Canadian economy as a whole. One study estimated that, in 2018 alone, insufficient Canadian pipeline capacity will cut the revenues of companies in the energy sector by nearly $16 billion due to lack of access to international markets. As one observer put it, “That’s one school a day, one hospital a week.”

Of course, in a free society, no group manages to achieve unanimity. And there will always be tensions between development and the environment. But the fact remains that Indigenous people, like all Canadians, want to be able to improve their living standards and offer their children a better future. Natural resource development has transformed many communities, which now have the means to provide decent infrastructure and services to their populations. We must let them continue in this direction.

Germain Belzile is a Senior Associate Researcher at the MEI and the author of “The First Entrepreneurs – Natural Resource Development and First Nations.” The views reflected in this op-ed are his own.

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