Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

A key recommendation of a generally pro-industry report by a joint federal government and Assembly of First Nations panel will almost certainly languish on the back-burner, perhaps forever. 

The report comes from the Working Group on Natural Resource Development, which has both aboriginal and business membership.

The Working Group was set-up by the Harper government and the national First Nations organization in 2013, following the Crown-First Nations meeting.

Its sure-to-be-ignored recommendation calls for industry to share the revenue from oil, gas, mineral and other resource development with First Nations. 

It is an eminently moderate and practical idea.

Mega-corporations (mostly foreign-owned) and governments stand to make billions of dollars from resources on First Nations’ lands. Why shouldn’t the First Nations people derive some direct monetary benefit as well?

Don’t hold your breath expecting that to happen, however. 

Most natural resources in Canada come under provincial jurisdiction, and it is the provinces that get to collect royalties and other taxes.

Those provinces are none too enthusiastic about splitting the cash with First Nations. 

‘Before the white eyes came, Indians didn’t know what resources were’

Premier Brad Wall of Saskatchewan made that abundantly clear during the last election campaign in his province, in 2011.

The NDP opposition had been foolhardy enough to promise it would share oil and potash revenue with Saskatchewan’s First Nations.

The NDP leader at the time, Dwain Lingenfelter, noted that First Nations people were here before the rest of us, but live in poverty and receive services, such as health and education, that are inferior to those the rest of us enjoy. 

Saskatchewan, Lingenfelter promised, would be the first province to share resource revenue directly with First Nations communities.

The Premier shot that idea down immediately.

“We believe the resource revenues of Saskatchewan belong to all people,” he said, “That’s how we keep taxes low.” 

Commenters on news sites gave a sense of how Wall’s electoral base felt about the NDP proposal.

“After a having the run of the joint for about 25,000 years before the white eyes came, Indians didn’t know what resources were,” wrote one. “Now we have to negotiate their cut. Are these Indians from Sicily or what?” 

“If First Nations want to share in the boom,” opined another, in a similar vein, “Get off your butts, get a job then you will get your ‘fair share.'”

While a third exploded: “What a huge load of crap. The NDP are attempting to scare the public into handing over our resource base to First Nations in perpetuity… According to the NDP leader if we don’t we may end up like a rural version of Detroit. More crime, more welfare, more whining, more disease, arson, vandalism, etc.”

Wall won that election handily. 

Prime Minister Stephen Harper used more nuanced language than those openly racist commenters, but said much the same thing when asked about revenue sharing on the eve of the much-ballyhooed Crown-First Nations meeting, early in 2013.

The Prime Minister summarily dismissed the whole idea, saying natural resources are the provinces’ business and he wouldn’t presume to tell the provinces what to do.

Harper’s commitment to respecting provincial prerogatives is highly selective. He was not similarly solicitous when his government trod all over provincial toes on such matters as minimum sentences or the gun registry. 

Giving more power and control to First Nations: A non-starter for Harper

Apart from its brief allusion to revenue sharing, the Working Group’s report mostly proposes the same nostrums that have failed to deliver much of anything to First Nations in the recent past.

The report assumes that resource development will happen, whether First nations want it or not, and focuses on ways to help get First Nations onto the bandwagon, with jobs, and with small businesses that service the resource industry.

The Working Group looks at the world almost entirely from the point of view of industry.

Its report mostly seems to advocate accommodation with First Nations as a strategy to head off Aboriginal resistance that could put major resource projects in jeopardy. 

Here are the words of the report itself:

“As opportunities in the industry continue to grow, Canada and First Nations will need to be ready with skilled and unskilled workers and related support businesses. Resource development is already the largest private employer of Aboriginal people in Canada. We need to prepare now to ensure that all of the opportunities and benefits of natural resource development will be fully shared by First Nations and all Canadians.”

Still, in many respects, even this pro-industry report goes far beyond what the Harper government would ever likely accept, based on past performance — and not just on the big and highly contentious issue of revenue sharing.

On environmental management, for instance, the report says that government and industry should: “Directly involve First Nations in the planning, design, management, ownership and reclamation phases of projects.”

In addition, the report says, government should:

“Support First Nations to develop and maintain the capacity to collect and manage environmental data and land use information for the purposes of long-term and cumulative impact reporting and management.”

Granting even such a limited and mitigated measure of control to First Nations is not something the Harper Conservatives have ever shown a willingness to do.

Indian Act stands in the way of new ‘governance models’

What the Conservatives will like in the Working Groups’s report are the recommendation to increase the “financial literacy” of First Nations and the suggestion to First Nations themselves that they “develop governance models” for resource development, in which politics is kept separate from business.

Yet even on governance, the authors of the report cannot help but point out a stumbling block that is not the fault of First Nations themselves, to wit: “The two-year Indian Act election cycle [for band councils and chiefs] poses additional challenges for First Nations in maintaining these distinctive approaches.”

The Indian Act. One hopes the Working Group will not have to remind the government that the Indian Act, which goes back to 1876, is not the creation of First Nations themselves.

In January of 2013, when First Nations concerns were briefly near the top of the federal political agenda, we discussed some of those governance, revenue sharing and economic benefit issues in this space. Here is what we said at the time, which still seems pertinent more than two years on. 


Photo: flickr/Stephen Harper

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...