Some choices for Canada’s native leadership in 2015

Bill Gallagher The native legal winning streak hit the 200 mark the same week that Perry Bellegarde was elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. I submit that of the two events, the winning streak is the more important. That's because no

COMMENTARY

by Bill Gallagher

The native legal winning streak hit the 200 mark the same week that Perry Bellegarde was elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. I submit that of the two events, the winning streak is the more important.

That’s because no matter how much effort the AFN puts into advancing other issues, the fact remains that the key to gaining access to the corridors of power lies in aboriginal peoples commercializing their hard-won legal empowerment in the resources sector.

But this dialogue is not happening in a meaningful way (albeit with a couple of notable exceptions) and their winning streak has become one of the main factors why Canada’s resource economy is struggling. You’d think that with 200 legal wins, the native leadership would be positioning to become a resource sector driver in a bid to chart a new course.

Recently the Globe and Mail started running an opinion series called “Rich Country Poor Nations,” about the disparity facing aboriginal outcomes. But I take issue with the concept that we’re a rich country, since every newspaper’s business section on resource access reads like the obituary section. That’s because every resource sector today has dismal industry headlines – some at the hands of native strategists – and coming to a climax right at the time of the AFN election.

Here’s a partial list of such headlines drawn from national print media from the date of Chief Bellegarde’s election as national chief, to underscore the fact that in 2015, fostering commercial opportunities might actually be the better way to go, instead of more litigation (which is becoming quite repetitive in terms of legal rationales).

Dec. 9: New AFN head promises to be catalyst for change; Dec. 17: Site C project still faces major hurdles; Dec. 30: The fight for Energy East.

Jan. 5: Canadian prosperity requires a strong resource industry; Jan. 13: Exxon pledges to work with First Nations; Jan. 23: Revenue sharing is an idea whose time has come; Jan. 31: First Nations demand halt to Energy East NEB review.

Feb. 1: Premiers nearing energy strategy; Feb. 5: Quagmire in native land; Feb. 6: CEAA Notice of Termination: Cliffs Chromite Project.

This is what the downward spiral in Canada’s resource economy looks like today (not to mention reduced revenue streams as a result of energy sector compression). And there’s nothing good in this for future community development anywhere.

Thus I submit: now’s the time to reverse this negative economic trend by engaging in constructive negotiations; so as to benefit from the new tool-box wielded by Inuit, Metis and First Nations, that is literally overflowing with 200 legal wins, surging resource empowerment and real economic opportunity.

The incoming national chief should recognize that the Harper government’s prior commitment to the (now aborted) “First Nations Control of First Nations Education Act” was to address this important issue, such that it would foster a rapprochement on resource access, which remains the No. 1 issue in Ottawa’s energy export platform.

Had that succeeded, I have no doubt that Shawn Atleo would still be national chief and progress would be made today on more equitable arrangements respecting access to resources. Instead, critically needed resource projects continue to spin around in the native empowerment blender without any upside in sight; not for governments, not for proponents, and most definitely not for aboriginal peoples.

As it is, the native legal winning streak is now a definite contributor to resource projects not happening. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and neither should it be.

So, back to that “Rich Country Poor Nations” series running. The AFN and all the regional native leadership right across the country now have a straightforward choice to make:

Are you going to keep litigating proposed resource projects, or are you prepared to constructively engage and develop a rapprochement with Canada and the provinces respecting access to resources?

If you are prepared to engage? Then now’s the time to show true leadership, and there’s not a moment to lose as the hollowing-out of resource opportunities continues apace north of the Trans Canada Highway, notably on traditional lands.

If you’re not prepared to engage, then know that that “Rich Country Poor Nations” headline (in my view) is a resource sector misnomer – because quite simply we’re not that rich! Also know that refusal to engage will make the native legal winning streak appear problematic in terms of public relations (as a negative economic factor dragging projects down) on account of not producing a host of critically needed commercial outcomes. Its time to put those legal wins to work.

All Canada has to benefit – including first and foremost aboriginal peoples.

Bill Gallagher is a strategist, lawyer and author of Resource Rulers: Fortune and Folly on Canada’s road to Resources. This article originally appeared in First Perspective.

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