Making sure First Nations gain from resource development – by Brian Davey (Onotassiniik Magazine – Fall 2014)

Brian Davey is the Executive Director of the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund

Much has been said about the Ring of Fire, impact and benefit agreements, new mines coming online, new infrastructure and employment opportunities. Many First Nation communities are probably wondering how we will actually benefit, or more importantly, how do we make sure we benefit? The last thing we want is a repeat of years gone by where First Nations received little or no benefit in terms of the business and employment opportunities stemming from resource development.

The first thing First Nation leaders must decide is whether we accept the outside government’s decision-making process on mines and related infrastructure, including whether the project is environmentally sound or has the approval to proceed. If the answer is ‘no,’ we should not engage in any form of participation that could be interpreted as consultation. If we do accept the framework that includes the government’s environmental assessment process and its right to permit, subject to our meaningful consultation or consent, then we are also telling our people that we are ready to negotiate with the developer in good faith to develop the traditional lands on behalf of our people.

For some, this may mean we are parking the sovereignty issue and our understanding of the Treaty. This may not be acceptable for some Treaty people, while others will be unwilling to risk the potential of losing opportunities that could lead to better living conditions. After all, the intent of the Treaty is to take care of our well-being for the benefit of our people.

Whatever we decide as a people, one thing is certain: resource development is not going away. There will be tremendous pressure on the community if a project has a valid business case, where governments, including First Nations, stand to make millions or billions of dollars over the long term. The pressure may not be significant at this stage but in time it will become evident. The real reason Cliffs Natural Resources backed out of the Ring of Fire development has more to do with world market conditions than anything else, not because of government or First Nation issues. Cliffs, or some larger company, will be back when world markets turn around and access to capital becomes available once again.

In the interim, aside from deciding on the larger jurisdictional or Treaty issues, First Nations can prepare in capacity building, creating an entrepreneurial culture, training and establishing businesses. Getting ahead of the game, or ‘skating to the spot where we think the puck is going,’ should be our game plan. As with any professional hockey team, the plan must be well executed, with all its players acting collectively. If we have too many individual stars who want to carry the puck all the way, chances are we will not succeed in our game plan. We must act as one.

There are many components to developing a winning strategy for benefitting from resource development.
One crucial element to such a strategy is to understand the importance of interdependence in creating wealth with people and companies that have already created wealth.

Second, make sure the agreements your First Nation strikes with resource developers can be leveraged to ensure First Nation majority-owned businesses are awarded contracts, subject to the quality of their service or product and price competitiveness. All things being equal, the First Nation business should get the business.
Thirdly, clearly visualize the goal you believe we are capable of delivering – what you expect to see once the plan is fully executed. Having the vision before starting any major undertaking in our lives or as a community has always been important to our people. The elders and spiritual leaders play a key role in helping us in this regard. Seeing the end game is paramount.

Fourthly, make sure the people are kept informed and not left behind. Many Treaty people are willing to let their leaders lead, but they quickly become dismayed when they are not kept informed on business development in their communities or on their lands. The aspirations of all families are the same everywhere in the world – the usual four elements are to be healthy, happy, loving, and fulfilled. Resource development, if it is done right and respects the land, can be a contributing factor in achieving for our communities all four elements stated above.

Finally, once operations begin on any resource development project there will always be bumps and bruises in the relationships involved. It’s important to plan for these potential differences upfront to prevent any strains in the relationships. It’s not possible to prevent them all but let’s try to reduce them. This is usually done through the main project agreements.

I will close with this: the vision is First Nations prosperity and there are many different ways to achieve that end. In regard to the larger community, prosperity in the First Nations community means prosperity for northern Ontario as a whole by virtue of the principle of interdependence. Ultimately, our success in generating wealth will not only be felt locally but will reach throughout the province and across the country.

Brian Davey has more than 35 years of experience working on First Nation business and economic development issues as an elected First Nations leader, executive, manager, management consultant, and employee in both the public and private sectors. Much of his experience is focused in northern Ontario in the resource sector, infrastructure development and financing. Presently, he is executive director of the Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund.