Karen Ogen-Toews: The Road to Reconciliation begins when Indigenous people can stand on their own two feet financially, and when their quality of life increases.
In communities across Canada, people are coming together in a wide range of activities intended to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous citizens closer together.
It’s a welcome start but it falls far short of meaningful “reconciliation” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
“Reconciliation is about establishing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in this country,” the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada declared in its 2015 report. It added: “We are not there yet.”
Indeed, we are not – even five years later.
There are Indigenous communities where unemployment hits 70 per cent. Poverty is rampant. More than half the 633 First Nations in Canada don’t have clean and reliable water supplies. At least half of reserves have defective and crowded housing.
Social problems abound:
- Education and income levels are lower.
- Suicide rates are five to seven times higher for First Nations youth than for non-Indigenous youth.
- Indigenous people make up some 20 per cent of people in prison, although they comprise only five per cent of the Canadian population.
- Life expectancy can be 10 to 15 years shorter.
- Infant mortality is higher.
As noted by Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Canada and its standard of living ranks sixth in the world according to the UN Human Development Index. But apply those index measurements to Canada’s Indigenous people and the rank drops to 63rd.
For me, reconciliation begins when we Indigenous people are able to stand on our own two feet financially, when our quality of life increases, when social and economic issues are addressed, and socio-economic gaps are closed. Then we can say we’re on our way.
The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed many initiatives but there are some encouraging signs of moves on economic reconciliation. Ken Coates, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan and fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, wrote in a paper in August: “Canada’s natural resource sector has emerged as one of the front lines of Indigenous reconciliation in Canada, providing the nation and Indigenous peoples with a new and evolving model of Indigenous-corporate engagement.”
Coates notes how court decisions began to shape a reality in which “major decisions about resource extraction and resource infrastructure, like pipelines, require Indigenous engagement, though not necessarily the communities’ formal approval.”
Coates is technically correct on the last point. But, certainly in B.C., you really can’t do your business on Indigenous land without consent from the affected First Nations.
That’s a long haul from the colonial era when resource companies simply invaded unceded Indigenous territory. They drilled, they built pipelines, mines and plants, dammed rivers, and carried on their business without affected First Nations having a say in any of it. And without compensation.
By now, however, First Nations have won more than 300 court decisions on land, title, rights, consultation and accommodation.
Many industries have learned how to “consult and accommodate” and how to build meaningful relationships with First Nations before trying to build projects. They can get to “Yes” if they take the time to do that and stick to it. And they can quickly get to “No” if they break promises or push disrespectful colonial values.
One example is by stating that all prime contractors must have a joint venture with the Indigenous nation or organization and then later renege on that understanding and agreement, or find loopholes in the project agreement. That’s not good faith practice with the Indigenous nations. It only creates mistrust and takes us back a few years.
B.C., the Northwest Territories and the federal government plan to harmonize their laws and practices with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
We’re not yet sure what this harmonization will look like in practice. Will it, in the end, mean you must have a First Nation’s approval for a resource project in B.C.?
If so, this has been happening in some sectors for years. A prime example is LNG Canada and the associated Coastal GasLink pipeline. There are others in liquefied natural gas and the mining sector.
Impact benefit agreements with resource developers became a standard practice, giving affected First Nations some financial benefits. So did procurement agreements, in which Indigenous-owned companies provide goods and services.
Now, Indigenous entities are pursing true partnerships in enterprises and a real share in the decisions (and the profits). As Coates notes: “Indigenous communities are becoming increasingly willing to defend the industry and make large equity investments in oil and gas.”
TC Energy, for example, plans to sell a stake of as much as 75 per cent in the Coastal GasLink natural gas pipeline in B.C. And a group of First Nations is looking to buy in.
The most cited possibility is an Indigenous share in the publicly-owned Trans Mountain pipeline and its expansion.
While some First Nations loudly oppose the line, three Western Canadian Indigenous groups have been eyeing a potential share: the Western Indigenous Pipeline Group, the Project Reconciliation group and the Alberta-based Iron Coalition. The first two say they’re interested in a least a majority share.
So we’re seeing some progress toward economic reconciliation – but we’re nowhere near there yet.
Governments need to help enable these opportunities for Indigenous people. They need to ensure a more modern approach to fiscal relations is developed and that capital is available for the broader opportunities.
And they need to build a policy framework that ensures Indigenous participation in the economy is more than an afterthought.
Karen Ogen-Toews of the First Nations LNG Alliance is an elected councillor of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation in British Columbia, and a former elected chief of that Nation.
- Former Attorney-General Suzanne Anton on the long and winding legal road before and behind Coastal GasLink and the Wet’suwet’en.
- In March, Dallas Smith wrote that protests and blockades obscure what should be an internal Wet’suwet’en dispute about governance, sadly co-opted by groups with their own agendas.
- One of the industries that will be most affected by UNDRIP is forestry. But as Carol Anne Hilton noted in March, the good news is much of it was already moving in the right direction.