Oil sands, gas exports, mining, forestry – most development occurs on First Nations land
“It has the people and the numbers to bring the Canadian economy to its knees. It can stop Prime Minister Harper’s resource development plans.” – Grand Chief Derek Nepinak, Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs
The “it” Chief Nepinak was referring to at his Thursday press conference in Ottawa is the Idle No More movement, and by extension the hunger strike of Chief Theresa Spence.
The Chief is the first to make it clear that Canadian First Nations politicians have found Stephen Harper’s Achille’s Heel.
The Prime Minister has staked his government on managing the economy, and more than anything else that means promoting investment and jobs in oil and gas, pipelines, mining and forestry. With manufacturing in decline in Ontario and Quebec, Canada is returning to its roots as a hewer of wood and drawer of water; the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers recently held an investment symposium in Toronto because oil sands producers plan to invest $60 billion in 2013 alone. Harper and Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver have said time and again that resource development will be the driver of the Canadian economy.
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Well, First Nations have the legal clout to bring Harper’s grand plans to a screeching, grinding halt.
“If we want to access our resources in these more remote areas of Canada, we have to work out an arrangement with [First Nations] leaders,” said Bill Gallagher, author of Resource Rulers: Fortune & Folly on Canada’s Road to Resources. “Their empowerment by the Constitution, backed up by 175 legal wins, is such that they are in a position to deny access to resources on an efficient and effective basis.”
Many Canadians think of First Nations as wards of the state, like welfare recipients. They think of the $7.8 billion Canada will spend on Aboriginal Affairs during this fiscal year as a form of social assistance, not as payment due under treaty, like a contract. They think of First Nations as another interest group, like labour or a religious minority.
That is not how Canada’s 614 First Nations see themselves. First Nations consider themselves sovereign peoples who entered into nation to nation treaties with the British Crown. Over the past 40 years or so they have been slowly asserting their sovereign right to control what they call “traditional territory,” which usually includes natural resources of some sort.
Now, according to Gallagher, they are in a position of considerable power. First Nations really are Canada’s “resource rulers.” Victory after victory in Canadian courts have firmly established the principle that nothing happens on their land without their assent and their participation.
Gallagher is an Ontario lawyer who has spent decades working with First Nations on treaty issues, resource development and government relations. He says First Nations want to work with Canadian governments and resource companies to foster investment and jobs. They want to be partners in the new prosperity.
But if they feel they aren’t being taken seriously and their concerns aren’t being addressed, First Nations have the ability to seize the public agenda, for better or for worse, he says.
Take the Northern Gateway pipeline. First Nations have been the real driving force behind B.C. opposition to the project, which would carry 525,000 barrels of oil sands crude from Alberta to Kitimat on the West Coast on its way to coveted Asian markets. If the National Energy Board grants approval in 2014, some First Nations have said they’ll challenge Enbridge in court. If you accept Gallagher’s argument, they’ll likely win.
Gallagher says First Nations have already blocked three British Columbia mines in recent years.
“I think Canadians will realize these people are players. We have to be sure we channel this positive empowerment in a way that we can mutually benefit,” he said during an interview. “Instead, what we’re seeing is the negative empowerment that we’re all familiar with and we can only take so much interest in because it hurts to follow it.”
Gallagher thinks Canada may miss a golden opportunity if Prime Minister Harper doesn’t embark on a “positive empowerment” strategy that turns First Nations into partners and builds a solid working relationship.
The consequences of continuing with the current negative empowerment could be severe.
Do Albertans want First Nations blocking oil sands investment?
Do British Columbians want First Nations saying No to liquified natural gas exports to Asia?
Do Ontario residents want First Nations denying access to northern mining operations?
Chief Nepinak was being modest when he said Idle No More has the power to stop resource development and shut down the Canadian economy. That power rests with he and his fellow chiefs.
For the sake of all Canadians, aboriginal and non-aboriginal alike, let’s hope they use it for positive empowerment.
And let’s hope Stephen Harper understands how vulnerable Canada is if they choose not to.
Category: First Nations