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Canadian politicians and First Nations leaders all agree that economic development will be critical for raising the living standards of Canada’s native population. In many cases, this will mean bringing large, multinational corporations onto traditional native lands — because only these companies have the resources and expertise necessary to develop mines and other capital-extensive resource-extraction operations.
Unfortunately, as the example of Attawapiskat shows, the situation in and around many reserves actively repels that kind of investment.
Large, risk-averse companies won’t invest in areas of the country where the local population doesn’t respect Canadian laws — or even obey local band chiefs. Militant native protesters in these areas may think they’re striking a blow for economic empowerment. But all they’re really doing is reinforcing the stereotype that native tribes aren’t responsible business partners.
The De Beers Victor Mine, located in the lowlands 90 km west of the James Bay Cree community of Attawapiskat, cost $1-billion to create. Before a single diamond particle was extracted, the company negotiated impact benefit agreements (IBAs) with four local communities — including Attawapiskat.
The details of the IBAs are confidential, but the company has publicly declared that “since the start of construction, over $360-million in contracts have been awarded to solely owned or joint venture companies run by [Attawapiskat]. In 2012, contracts awarded to the community were over $40-million. To build capacity within the community, two training facilities have been constructed in the community at a combined cost of almost $2-million. We currently employ over 60 full-time employees from the community, and over 100 from other First Nations.”
In addition to providing all of this employment, infrastructure and money, De Beers operates the 250 km ice road running from the town of Moosonee at the southern tip of James Bay all the way up to Attawapiskat — a massive engineering undertaking that provides three months of car access to communities that are otherwise fly-in dots on the map.
I drove the ice road last month and was shocked by how much manpower and heavy equipment is required to keep it operational. (Jobs on the ice road are in high demand — and the lucky men who get them often flaunt their specialized jackets as status symbols even when they’re off-duty.)
De Beers doesn’t do this out of the goodness of its corporate heart. It does it because it wants to operate a profitable diamond mine — and the ice road is an essential means to deliver fuel and heavy equipment that can’t be brought in by air. This is how it justifies the cost of the ice road and the multi-million-dollar IBAs to its shareholders.
For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post website: http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/02/21/jonathan-kay-natives-hurting-themselves-with-lawless-blockade-of-de-beers-mine/