​Battle ready: Indigenous people around the world fight to develop economies while maintaining culture

Image: Shutterstock/Sergei-Bachlakov

When Seven Generations Energy was in discussions with a prospective LNG partner that had convinced two First Nations on the B.C. coast that LNG transport was safe and they should consider allowing projects on their land, in both cases these First Nations said, “Yes, but we’ve heard bad things about fracking.” So the LNG proponent asked Seven Generations to give these folks a tour of their operations.

Seven Generations chief executive officer Pat Carlson invited the West Coast delegations out to Grande Prairie, Alta. They toured the company’s Montney development, and in the evening, Calson hosted meetings between the west coast delegations and local First Nations in his own living room.

“It’s fascinating to see the respect they have for each other’s views,” Carlson told an audience at the Indigenous Conference on Energy and Mining at this year’s Global Petroleum Show. “In both cases, both First Nations went back to British Columbia and said, ‘We think this is being done safely.’ I was particularly moved in one case when they said they didn’t have all the answers about fracking, but they felt that we are equally concerned about the environment as they are.”

A similar scenario played out in Saskatchewan when uranium miner Cameco sought approval for a project in Western Australia. The local indigenous group was undecided about the merits of a uranium mine in their desert home. They also effectively held veto power over the proposal. So Cameco flew 15 members of that Australian community to northern Saskatchewan to meet behind closed doors with the local indigenous groups that already work with and are impacted by Cameco’s operations. After those meetings, a deal was signed.

Given indigenous history, trust is a rare commodity when business interests come knocking. Both of these stories speak to the credibility that indigenous people have with other indigenous people as well as the increasing interconnectedness of indigenous people around the world as they share lessons and best practices in dealing with industry and move into an era of greater self-reliance.

“The days of relying on government funding are long gone,” says Bernd Christmas, an aboriginal lawyer and current chief executive officer of Gitpo Storms, an indigenous company with a diverse portfolio of businesses. “There’s lots and lots of projects, both onshore and offshore, and it will just get better. Eventually, indigenous communities must be saying, ‘We don't need government. Let’s just work quicker with the private sector.’ I stress that: quicker with the private sector. That’s how it’s got to be. And it will be as our treasuries and our capacities build up.”

The Haida Supreme Court decision impact

First Nations are beginning to make progress in dealing with government, but that progress has been slow.

“Over 237 Supreme Court cases are now starting to really highlight that there was a deal between indigenous people and the Canadian government,” Christmas says. “The British and the current governments have broken the deal many times, but the relationship is now pivoting over to a more equitable perspective, and it will continue to do so.”

The Haida Nation v. British Columbia (Minister of Forests) case from 2004 is the leading Supreme Court of Canada decision on the duty to consult aboriginal groups prior to exploiting lands to which these communities may have claims. This decision changed the landscape of how natural resource–development companies work with aboriginal communities. But it still leaves plenty of gray area around what constitutes sufficient consultation—especially for companies inclined to see duty to consult as a formality and just another hurdle to getting down to business as usual. “Even when you get into a deal with a First Nation, it’s not just a matter of saying, ‘Okay, we have an MOU. We need to build a site and a pipe. Here’s the contract.’ It’s just not that simple,” Christmas says. “You have to start addressing some of the issues. You have to discuss the housing needs. You have to discuss the geography, the remoteness in some cases. You have to discuss education and the politics—lots and lots of politics. It’s a fun game.”

Communications is the bedrock of working with First Nations. Unless companies take the initiative to communicate early, often and consistently over the life of the project, “the average Jane and John Doe on the res, when they hear these big names like Lockheed Martin and TransCanada and Boeing and if they don’t know anything about the deal, they will stop the deal. It’s just as simple as that,” Christmas says.

The Haida court case has created a lot of confusion on consultation, according to a recent report from the Fraser Institute. An inconsistent patchwork of federal and provincial duty to consult policies and guidelines currently exist across the country, finds the study.

The study, The Duty to Consult with Aboriginal Peoples: A Patchwork of Canadian Policies , spotlights the origins and principles that obligates governments to consult Aboriginal peoples prior to making decisions that could affect Aboriginal or treaty rights—an obligation that is triggered over 100,000 times a year across the country.

In an effort to address the Crown’s obligation, provinces have produced policies and guidelines to govern the consultation processes. These frameworks, however, vary significantly between jurisdictions.

“The duty to consult has been implemented by provincial governments in different ways across the country. This has resulted in a patchwork of policies that can be difficult to navigate for Aboriginal people and for project proponents who are trying to advance development projects that cross multiple provincial boundaries,” says Ravina Bains, the former associate director of aboriginal policy studies at the Fraser Institute.

There are some principles that all jurisdictions share, such as the Crown taking responsibility for the duty to consult. There are other principles that differ dramatically.

The study lauds Alberta and Saskatchewan as the only provinces that have specific timelines to ensure the duty to consult is implemented in a timely way.

There are, however, provinces that lack clear and systematic duty to consult guidelines.

For example, B.C., Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba all still have draft guidelines; Ontario’s draft guidelines are now a decade old.

“It’s concerning that these four provinces—which collectively have the majority of Aboriginal communities engaging in consultation processes in Canada—still have draft guidelines. This has the potential of creating uncertainty for both Aboriginal communities and project proponents,” Bains says.

The study notes that the duty to consult is triggered if there is a chance of an adverse impact on an Aboriginal community’s rights and traditional territory. And, given all the traditional territory and land claims, it’s possible that every major development project in every part of the country could require consultation with Aboriginal communities.

“With the large number of development projects potentially affecting traditional territory, it is important that we have in place sound policies that can help guide government officials, Aboriginal people and project proponents through the consultation process to ensure that the Crown’s duty to consult is being fulfilled,” Bains says.

Know your partners

In any communication, it helps to know something about the parties. Maria Jose Trevino, senior partner and founder of Mexico Green Energy, which specializes in consulting and project development in Mexico, says that even before starting the communication process with any of the 17 indigenous groups and countless rural communities in Mexico, she has a team research and learn as much as possible about the target community.

“Each community is different,” Trevino says. “They differ in health needs, demographics, neighbours, tensions between social groups, corruption, family roles, government involvement, etc. So gather all the paperwork that will explain their past and potential economic situation, political and social commitments and familiarize yourself with whom you will be incorporating in your project.”

Once the communication channels are open, the relationship begins. Cameco is Canada’s top industrial employer of aboriginal people and currently employs more than 800 First Nations and Metis people with another 500 long-term contracts with First Nations and Metis ancestry. The company follows a five-pillar strategy of community work. At the centre is community engagement, facilitated by regular meetings, which shapes the other four pillars: workforce development, business development, community investment and environmental stewardship.

Peter Dodson, Cameco’s manager of corporate social responsibility, describes the transformation of the northern Saskatchewan community of Pinehouse where, in the last four years, Cameco has hired 59 people and, in the last year, has spent $8.5 million on direct salaries. In the 1970s, however, a program called W5 made a documentary film about Pinehouse, which established the community as “the saddest place in Canada” and “the drinking capital of Canada.”

“When we first went there to negotiate, they showed us this documentary and said, ‘This really changed the trajectory of our community and where we wanted it to be,’” Dodson says.

“All the credit goes to the community and what they have been able to do,” he says. “They brought in an immense and unbelievable amount of training programs, from things as basic as essential skills to apprenticeship programs, which has not only benefited our company, but it has also benefited their own economic development. All this training has really created, as Walter Smith from Pinehouse [the manager of training and development at Pinehouse Business North] says, a culture of working. It’s created a culture of partnership that we’re really proud of.”

The way forward

Each community is different and for every Pinehouse in Saskatchewan or every Fort McKay First Nation in Alberta that has been successful in working with corporations, there are many indigenous communities that struggle with isolation, poverty and a lack of resources. Others may attract investment interest but simply aren’t ready for it. Just as companies need to have a holistic vision of working with indigenous people, aboriginal communities need a vision of how they can benefit from corporate investment and what they have to offer.

“If you go after an economic opportunity and you’re not ready, your deal is done,” Christmas warned the audience of indigenous, government and private company delegates. “You can get access to the C-suite in small and medium-sized and even large companies, but if you’re not ready, that’s your shot and it’s done, and you’re never getting it back no matter what your leverage is. You have to be ready for the opportunity, build up your capacity within the community and be prepared for the economic aspects of it.”

Education and training are often needed most in indigenous communities if meaningful participation is the goal. The training programs Pinehouse leaders brought in are a good example of taking the initiative, but the passion of the Maori in New Zealand for higher education goes further.

“In the last 50 years, we’ve invested heavily in training our young kids. We’ve sent them off around the world to train in the best universities of the world,” said Chris Karamea Insley, an expert in sustainable development and member of the New Zealand Deep South (Antarctic) National Science Challenge Maori Advisory Panel, during a panel discussion on indigenous best practices.

Insley, who is of Maori descent and holds a PhD in sustainability studies, an MBA, and several post-graduate certificates in commerce and finance from top universities including the Harvard Business School, stressed the importance of reinvesting community earnings into its youth.

“What’s driving indigenous development forward is education—engineering, science and technology, etc. It’s certainly something we’re putting a lot of time and energy into along with our education strategy,” Insley said. “I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. Keep pushing that money back into those children, and keep kicking them out of our homes, too, and sending them away to get educated. They will come home, and they’ll lead and sustain projects into the future.”

These projects, in New Zealand at least, are within a Maori economy, an economy within the larger New Zealand. Currently valued at about $40 billion, the Maori economy is still comparatively small, but what is significant is its growth rate of 15 per cent year-over-year.

“The rest of the New Zealand economy is growing about three to four per cent, which is typical for OECD countries. So now we are seriously getting on the radar of our political leaders in New Zealand. They’re saying, ‘For the New Zealand economy to succeed, we’ve got to get on board the Maori economy and help both economies move forward,’” Insley said.

The Maori economy is still largely rooted in agriculture, but as educated Maori youth return home, they are bring new ideas and skills and are diversifying into real estate, infrastructure, hospitals and other ventures.

“Our youth want to come home, and they will come home if we have the jobs,” Insley said. “The aunties are always asking me when I come home, ‘What are you really doing to create jobs?’”

The Maori’s vision of self-reliance goes well beyond government handouts, even beyond working with multinational or local companies that want access to Maori land and resources. They want to own those companies. The Maori want their own place on the world stage, and they are pursuing their own model of economic growth rooted in their indigenous values.

“Economics is still fundamental,” Insley says. “You have to hit the numbers, but at the same time, you have to fix all those other things—the environment, the rivers and the communities, etc.

“The fundamental element of the way we think about our economy is that it takes a long-term view. It’s not a payback of two or three years or five years. It’s a long-term view of 50–100 years and more…. We want to be able to hand over these things to our kids so they can take charge and look after them and leave them in a better state.”

That vision will require the Maori to leverage their traditional knowledge and wisdom and best western education. In conversation with Oilweek after the conference, Insley expanded on the Maori’s determination to “foot it with anyone.”

“My own grandmother told me before she died, ‘Go to school and learn and work hard.’ That just seems to be an ethic that has been drummed into us. All of us Maori.

“When our elders groomed us, it was to never go into a meeting with government or a head of industry without first sitting down beforehand and, in great detail, considering every single question that was likely to come up and saying, ‘If this comes up, you deal with it. If that comes up, you deal with that.’ So now we’ve grown these experts and thrust them forward so that we’re not blindsided or outwitted by government and industry who bring their own experts. We’ve got our own team of experts, and we can foot it with anyone.”

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