Indigenous economic development heading into a growth phase in 2021: Minister

Cascade Power Project Image: Government of Alberta

Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson expects economic growth for Indigenous communities in Alberta in 2021.

In an interview with Windspeaker.com, Wilson said announcements are likely to come this month on economic development opportunities with an aggressive Indigenous tourism plan to spark the growth.

 “Two pretty major announcements will come from the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation,” which was created in 2020, said Wilson. The AIOC is backstopped by the province with $1 billion in loan guarantees aimed at reducing the cost of capital for Indigenous groups to go ahead with commercially viable projects in energy, mining or forestry.

 Last year, the AIOC backstopped its first and only project for $97 million as a joint venture for six First Nations as part of the Cascade Power project.

“So that's exciting to be able to get some bigger projects going to help out some of the First Nations,” said Wilson. “That's where I feel our successes are really going to be felt.”

The province has announced that it will not be providing more funding to the Metis Settlement General Council when the existing 10-year, $85-million agreement expires in 2023.

“If I can get them involved in some of these bigger projects and create their own income and give them that pride of ownership and determining their own destiny that's what we're really shooting for,'' he said. The minister said there is forestry and oil and gas developments that can happen on the 1.25 million acres of land the settlements have in total.

Some “major announcements'' will also be coming from the $5-million Aboriginal Business Investment Fund in mid- to the end of January, said Wilson.

The ABIF provides up to $500,000 in grants for small businesses to cover capital costs for Indigenous community-owned economic development projects.

Wilson does not expect his department's budget to be hit with extensive cuts in the new fiscal year despite the difficult financial position the province faces with the downturn in the oil and gas industry.

Indigenous tourism is another facet of economic development that Wilson is pushing.

One-quarter to one-third of people coming to Canada want an “Indigenous experience,'' he said, adding that his department has been working with Indigenous Tourism Alberta. According to the ITA website, $130 million of spending in Alberta is generated through Indigenous tourism.

Wilson said he would like to promote an Indigenous corridor in the province that would include such southern attractions as Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump and Blackfoot Crossing and the tipi villages at Calgary to the proposed tipi village in Ponoka and moving north to the Metis Crossing at Smoky Lake and the pristine lakes for fishing and camping in the Fort McMurray area.

Wilson said Kenney has asked him to set up a round table and work with the ministry of jobs and economy “to see if we can find some way to increase our Indigenous tourism across the province, so that's going to be really exciting.''

Wilson believes that now is the time for such a venture despite the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on travel. He said he hopes the vaccine will renew confidence in the industry.

–– Shari Narine, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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