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Canada at a crossroads: Indigenous rights to resources

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It may turn out that 2013 is the year Canada started taking Indigenous resource rights seriously.

Five centuries ago, when Europeans began trading with the Indigenous nations here for resources, the relationship rewarded Indigenous abilities to extract those resources and recognized Indigenous rights over them. 

But that didn’t last long.

In 1670, King Charles II “granted” Rupert’s Land, more than one third of what is now Canada, to a foreign resource development corporation: the Hudson’s Bay Company.  Drawing on the doctrines of discovery and terra nullius -- doctrines that both the United Nations and the Supreme Court of Australia have labelled as illegitimate remnants of racist colonialism -- the King felt he had the right to grant land that was not his because no Christian monarch had made prior claim.

Canada’s history ever since is replete with related stories of fraudulently obtained resources benefitting foreign corporations to the detriment of Indigenous nations.

But, echoing Indigenous voices from Idle No More, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations and many others, a series of reports suggest that we have reached a crossroads.

This year, the MacDonald-Laurier Institute launched a three-year project, Aboriginal Canada and the Future of the Natural Resource Economy, and the Fraser Institute released the report, Opportunities for First Nation prosperity through oil and gas development. While regular readers of this space will have seen my take on where those analyses fail, the fact that the issue is drawing this attention is a sign of growing nervousness in corporate Canada.

And yesterday’s report by Doug Eyford, appointed by the Prime Minister himself to advise on how to facilitate Indigenous cooperation in resource development, should only heighten concerns. 

Despite not going far enough on many issues -- for example, the phrase “resource revenue sharing” does not even appear in the document  -- the report gives the government plenty to think about.  Eyford says he hopes the report will be seen as a constructive starting point for discussion and it very well could be. 

The real challenge for the Harper government is in following the report’s modest recommendations. 

Eyford outlines “three themes that help focus action: building trust, fostering inclusion, and advancing reconciliation.” 

Given his mandate and employer, it is unsurprising that Eyford does not enumerate the many ways in which the Harper government has gone out of its way to destroy any trust that might have been developing, put assimilation above reconciliation, and exclude Indigenous peoples both from decisions that affect their future and from the rewards of economic development. 

Labeling First Nations as adversaries and radicals does not build trust, nor does failing to implement treaties or agreements such as the Kelowna Accord and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Continuing impoverishment of First Nations and imposing legislation without consultation do nothing to advance inclusion and reconciliation either.

What is urgently needed is a government that understands these issues and is willing to act on them, a true partner in reconciliation.

It is certain that the Harper government has not been and never can be that partner.

And Justin Trudeau’s positions in favour of FIPA and the Keystone XL pipeline -- taken without consideration of Indigenous objections -- offer little hope from that quarter. 

However, Tom Mulcair’s speech to the Economic Club of Canada this week suggests the NDP may be ready to engage, should it form the next government.

In that speech, the first major address since his “listening tour” this summer, Mulcair spoke of the need for social license through “(p)artnership, to make sure that communities, provinces and First Nations all benefit from resource development.”

Rather than “seeing the role of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples as an obstacle to be overcome”, Mulcair suggests that we “should realize it's an opportunity to partner with First Nations. To build and sustain a real nation-to-nation relationship.”

And, in a line that could have come from Eyford’s report or from Indigenous leadership itself, Mulcair rightly notes that, “(u)ntil we take seriously our responsibilities under the Constitution and international law, development will continue to face opposition and energy projects will continue to be blocked.”

If Canada in 2013 is at a crossroads, the election in 2015 could be an opportunity to choose a different path.

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