Massive industrial developments are coming to Western Canada, and First Nations need to either get on board or be left behind, according to former Indian and Northern Affairs minister Jim Prentice.
In a speech at the Assembly of First Nations’ annual meetings in Whitehorse yesterday, Prentice said that First Nations need put more focus on “getting to ‘yes.’”
“The importance of getting to ‘yes’ – that doesn’t hinge on governments, federal and provincial, it hinges on First Nations seizing the initiative,” Prentice said in an interview before his speech.
The federal government has a duty to consult and accommodate First Nations, and the courts will insist they live up to that duty, he said.
“The whole duty to consult, which gets First Nations to the table, it gets to ‘yes,’” Prentice said.
“It’s the platform that gets First Nations into the room and allows them to negotiate economic benefits and ownership stakes and full participation in these kinds of projects.”
Prentice, a lawyer and a banker by trade, is the vice-chairman of CIBC. He served as the minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development for the Conservative government in 2006 during the negotiations of the now-defunct Kelowna Accord.
In his speech on Tuesday, Prentice said that some of the biggest companies in the world will be embarking on enormous “nation-building” projects, which he likened to the Canadian Pacific Railroad and the St. Lawrence Seaway.
“I’m talking about everything from LNG facilities and terminals, development of the oilsands, development of hydro projects right across the country.
“Resource projects like the Ring of Fire – these are all opportunities for First Nations to advance themselves economically,” he said.
Those companies will come armed with the most high-calibre lawyers and negotiators in the world, and First Nations need to join them at the table with their own experts to make sure they get a slice of the pie, said Prentice.
“It’s always easy to not get there, and pull back, and let things happen around you, and I think that’s a mistake.”
If First Nations don’t come to the table, they’ll be left out of the revenue sharing and won’t reap the economic benefits of these mega-projects, Prentice said.
“One of the best examples of what I’m saying is what happened in 1973 with the Umbrella Final Agreement. People had the courage to sort of take a risk, get to ‘yes,’ strike an agreement and we’re now seeing the benefits of that.”
The Umbrella Final Agreement was signed in 1993. Elijah Smith’s watershed document Together Today for our Children Tomorrow was brought to Ottawa in 1973. Smith’s document was not an agreement with Ottawa, but was a statement of grievances with Ottawa demanding that the federal government negotiate in good faith to settle land claims.
“Many of the First Nations in this room will be called upon to make those choices, ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ I hope that you will grab it, because a long time ago your ancestors and my own faced an opportunity to create this country and we seized it together. We’re all a long, long way from finishing that work,” Prentice said.
But his optimistic language didn’t sit well with many of the assembled First Nations’ delegates.
After Prentice finished, Chief Robert Shintah of B.C.‘s Ts’kw’aylaxw First Nation stood to address the audience and the former minister.
“I feel it’s my duty to say this. I remember you when you were my Indian Agent. Do you remember what I said that day? Even now, as I listen to you speak up here, my gut still turns because I still hear your language of ‘take it or leave it,’” Shintah said, earning loud applause from the audience.
He explained that he was referring to Prentice’s time as the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs. He had previously referred to Prentice as his Indian Agent at a conference at Vancouver’s Pan Pacific Hotel.
Prentice got so flustered he stormed off the stage and left the building, Shintah said.
“I’m not the only one. There are a lot more chiefs in there that feel like I do,” he said.
Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Ruth Massie was also unimpressed by Prentice’s suggestions.
“Take your time. As indigenous people we aren’t going anywhere – we’re already home – so why are we in a hurry? As far as industry, industry needs to make better efforts in understanding First Nations. As Yukon First Nations we always say you should know who we are and where we come from. That’s how we introduce ourselves as people. And then you dialogue good, bad, or indifferent after,” Massie said.
It’s good for First Nations to assert their rights and demand fair negotiations, but industry bears much of the responsibility as well, Massie said.
“I know in the last couple of years with access to resources in the territory we have, as First Nations leaders, encouraged industry: ‘Come and talk to us, tell us what you’re doing.’ We’re not against development but we want you to do it responsibly because we’re the ones that have to look after the impacts if there are any negative impacts,” she said.
The Assembly of First Nations annual meetings continue until tomorrow afternoon at the Coast High Country Inn.
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