First Nations firmly rooted on both sides of the resource development debate – by Trevor McLeod and Roger Gibbins (Troy Media – May 6, 2015)

Trevor McLeod is the Director of the Centre for Natural Resources Policy at the Canada West Foundation and Roger Gibbins is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation.

CALGARY, AB – Potential resource developments too often face an unbridgeable abyss, with project proponents perched on one side and First Nations and environmentalists on the other. Unfortunately, the historic bridge-builders are absent.

Governments have abandoned the space and are assumed to favour project proponents. Regulators, like the National Energy Board, are able to answer “how” a resource might be developed but do not always have the scope to answer the “should” question.

And so we have a stalemate, which is a win for those opposed to development – and a signal to the business community to take its money elsewhere.

If we rethink our initial assumptions, however, we may realize it is a mistake to place First Nations on either side of the abyss. In fact, they are firmly rooted on both sides.

While many First Nations have very real and culturally embedded environmental concerns, many also have a stake in resource development. Revenue sharing is a meaningless concept if there is no revenue to share. Employment opportunities are important for economically depressed communities.

Unfortunately, years of policy failure have pushed all sorts of historical grievances into negotiations with resource companies. Until these grievances are addressed, some First Nations will oppose resource development on principle. Others are looking to move beyond historic grievances for development solutions that reflect their values.

The idea of thinking of First Nations as partners is not new and certainly not revolutionary, but it deserves more attention and adoption. Fortunately, there are many successful examples of this approach working across Canada.

A joint report released recently by the Assembly of First Nations and Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada – Advancing Positive, Impactful Change – highlights a number of instances in which strong, meaningful relationships have been built between companies and First Nations. It is worth a read.

The report is both interesting and helpful. Yet, most of the examples highlight the experience of mining and energy companies that produce in the same place for long periods of time, usually decades. These companies for the most part have already figured out the importance of developing partnerships with First Nations.

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