First Nations and resource development: Some glad tidings

Op-ed published exclusively on our website.

Recently, the MEI published a research paper on First Nations. This study illuminates an aspect of indigenous people’s reality that is little known among the general public: their growing involvement in the development of natural resources.

This kind of research is rather uncommon for the Institute. In general, our work looks at a public policy and how to improve it. In this case, interviews with indigenous leaders provided a running thread through the study, accompanying an overview of cases of partnerships between First Nations and non-indigenous companies.

This paper did not aim to present the pros and cons of natural resource development, whether by or in collaboration with First Nations. The “cons” are often in the news. Our study focused instead on the positive impact such projects have already had, and how they have the potential to profoundly alter the relationships between First Nations, companies, and non-indigenous people—how, above all, they provide a glimpse of a better future for indigenous people in Canada.

The impression one gets from this research is far removed from the pessimistic, even despondent, vision often associated with First Nations communities. It features indigenous leaders who are attached to their traditions but also turned resolutely to the future, who are determined to preserve their environment but also intent to not depend on government largesse any longer, and who want to put food on the table and see their children enjoy better opportunities. In short, this is the optimistic side of the coin, seldom portrayed in the media.

In the interviews that I myself gave related to this research, one thing stands out: the extreme surprise of journalists upon hearing about this hidden facet of the lives of many indigenous groups, approving of and actively involved in resource development. It is therefore important to say it clearly: Canadian indigenous people are not uniformly opposed to resource development on their territory.

Numerous successes

Success stories are not hard to find. The Tahltan Nation of British Columbia created the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation in 1985, which its President referred to as “a quintessential success story” on the occasion of the company’s 30th anniversary. This group is active in the production of hydroelectricity and in forestry. In the same province, the Lax Kw’alaams Nation has logging revenues of over $22 million a year, representing more than one-third of its total revenues and far exceeding federal transfers. Note that the National Aboriginal Forestry Association estimates that 1,200 to 1,400 indigenous companies are active in the forestry industry across the country.

Aquaculture Canada has identified some fifty indigenous groups active in this sector, including the Kitasoo/Xai’Xais of British Columbia and the Waycobah of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, which have their very own salmon and trout farms.

In Northern Quebec, the Wemindji Cree are also involved in the mining sector. The Goldcorp mine, inaugurated in 2015, now employs 225 members of First Nations, accounting for about one-quarter of its employees. Mining is one of the areas where First Nations are the most active. Between 2000 and 2017, 455 agreements were signed in this sector, often with priority hiring and subcontracting clauses for their members. In 2016, First Nations members working in this sector declared a median income twice as high as that of workers in their communities overall, and nearly twice as high as that of non-indigenous people as a whole.

The Fort McKay Nation of northern Alberta, with just under 900 members, has reported annual revenues of $60 million in recent years, reaching a peak of $80 million in the 2017-2018 fiscal year. The average after-tax income of Fort McKay residents was about $73,000 in 2015. Recall that the median income in Quebec is just $41,000 a year. And while First Nations members holding jobs earned an average of $51,500 in 2016, before taxes, the average wage was nearly $150,000 for those working in oil and gas extraction, and more than $200,000 for those working on gas pipelines.

These are just a few of the cases presented in the research paper, which in turn presents just a fraction of the partnerships in which First Nations are involved in developing Canada’s resources.

Despite all of these successes, however, numerous obstacles remain. Bills C-49 and C-69, currently under review in Ottawa, risk making it more difficult, if not impossible, to get new resource development projects done. The efforts of First Nations to try to improve their lot are laudable. We should encourage them, and above all, we should avoid creating additional obstacles to their empowerment.

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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