First Nations must be partners, not an afterthought – by Shawn Atleo (Globe and Mail – August 22, 2012)

The Globe and Mail is Canada’s national newspaper with the second largest broadsheet circulation in the country. It has enormous influence on Canada’s political and business elite.

Shawn A-in-chut Atleo is the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

The debate over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline has vaulted First Nations people and their rights to the forefront of the national discussion on energy, the environment and resource development.

This is fitting. Our lands are the backbone of the Canadian economy. Yet we have often been seen only as an obstacle or afterthought to development (when we were seen at all). Now we have an opportunity and impetus to reconcile our rights and interests and reap benefits for all Canadians.

The Northern Gateway project is capturing headlines, but it is only one of many major projects planned or under way, projects worth hundreds of billions in economic activity. All these projects are located in or near First Nations’ traditional territories. Any project that could affect their lands or lives requires their consent. This is what we agreed to in treaties and it is a reality in Canadian law.

The old approach of limited, back-end consultation must be swept away. It only leads to frustration, injunctions and conflict. The new standard, as articulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is “free, prior and informed consent.”

From a practical standpoint, this means “engage early and engage often” with First Nations – right from conception to the last spike.

Business and industry increasingly understand this. In July, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives called for “stronger partnerships” with First Nations, citing a spectrum of positive, mutually beneficial approaches. We also see new trends toward “localnomics” – with increasing energy costs and new technologies, there is tremendous value and profit in working directly with and for local jurisdictions.

Engagement does not guarantee a green light. It must be meaningful and it must respect community values and long-term interests both for their lands and their peoples.

Together, we can create the conditions for shared success.

First, governments must be prepared to address key, long-standing issues that are holding us back. The federal government must work with First Nations to move away from the Indian Act, to honour and give life to inherent rights, title and treaties. This work is under way, but going slowly. It requires a vigorous commitment from all governments and a national framework based on treaty implementation and rights recognition. Endless negotiation and mounting legal costs on all sides serve no one. Recognizing and implementing clear constitutional duties is a necessary and sound fiscal plan for all of Canada.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Globe and Mail website:


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