Canada’s top aboriginal leader warned that the country’s push for resource projects will be bogged down in legal and political strife unless governments consult more on revenue sharing and environmental protection.
“People won’t invest in Canada if there is instability, if there is no partnership with indigenous peoples,” Perry Bellegarde, leader of the Assembly of First Nations, said Wednesday in an interview at Bloomberg’s Ottawa office. He said disputes over resource rights with aboriginals will affect most of the estimated C$675 billion ($536 billion) of projects over the next decade.
Aboriginal power is growing, as was shown in recent court victories involving land-claim issues and the Idle No More street protests that began about two years ago, said Bellegarde, who in December was elected to head the group representing about 900,000 people in 634 communities. Leaders of Canada’s First Nations will choose from a range of political and legal “alternatives” if the government continues to fail to “consult and accommodate” aboriginals, he said.
“So how do you stop that? Check your political strategy, check your legal strategy, and people will probably get on the land to protect the land,” he said. The pressure will also include more political lobbying in the run-up to the federal election expected in October, Bellegarde said.
‘People Get Frustrated’
Bellegarde, 52, a Saskatchewan chief, won his AFN post following the surprise resignation of Shawn Atleo, whose support frayed as he sought cooperation on education funding with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Some aboriginals want more resistance, including through street protests.
Harper’s focus on making Canada an energy superpower, and attempts to speed up project approvals, are leaving aboriginals behind, Bellegarde said. Projects — such as Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to the Pacific coast — run through land subject to agreements that have been disputed for centuries.
“These people are on unemployment and they are poor,” he said. “They watch all these trees being trucked out of their home territories and nothing coming back. People get frustrated seeing that every day, so people want to be involved.”
Recent court rulings have made clear that governments must make a genuine effort to “consult and accommodate” aboriginals where there is a credible land claim, said Karen Busby, a law professor at the University of Manitoba.
“We are going to start feeling the pain of the failure to do that in the next little while,” Busby said by telephone from Winnipeg. She also said the consultations are not “a veto” but “a serious consideration” for companies and governments.
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