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Regardless of short term ups and downs, Canada’s resource economy is booming as never before.
This should be an opportunity not just for all Canadians, but especially for many Aboriginal Canadians who inhabit the land surrounding the mining and energy projects underway or planned across the mid and far North.
In fact, this new resource-based wealth could be the key to progress in ending the shameful plight of too many First Nations people in Canada.
To do so, however, we are going to have to change behaviour and expectations on both sides of the Aboriginal/non-Aboriginal divide. Happily, far from being a distant and improbable prospect, we can already discern the new shape of the relationship.
Indigenous conflict with resource developers is hardly new. But in one of the most profound changes in recent Canadian history, however, Aboriginal people are now poised both to shape and capitalize on the wealth-producing possibilities of resource extraction.
We don’t appreciate the positive significance of what has happened because too many of us are still stuck in the politics of confrontation of the 1980s and 1990s, when Indigenous leaders fought for political attention, constitutional guarantees, redress of historical grievances, land claims settlements, self-government and resource rights.
That generation of Indigenous leaders was hugely successful, and changed the country in the process.
Moreover, the Supreme Court has decreed governments and mining companies have a duty to consult Aboriginal people before proceeding with development projects. Like it or not, Indigenous peoples will henceforth be major players in Canada’s resource economy.
In other words, Canada has said “Yes” to many of the demands of Indigenous Canadians.
But the most important — and subtlest — change has taken place inside Aboriginal communities.
A new generation of leaders preoccupied with economic progress has emerged. First Nations and Inuit communities across the country have set up development corporations, joint venture companies with resource firms, locally- and community-owned businesses, and consulting operations.
Hundreds of Aboriginal students each year attend college and university programs, studying everything from business to engineering, the mining trades and environmental remediation. Thousands of Aboriginal people now work in the resource sector, with the numbers swelling yearly.
The new realities have also penetrated the corporate boardrooms of the land. Companies are increasingly moving beyond minimum legal requirements, developing substantial partnerships with First Nations and Inuit communities, realizing that such actions are not feel-good window-dressing but sound business practice.
While confrontations and difficulties are still common — just think the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario and the Enbridge Pipeline — there are many more instances of Indigenous co-operation with resource companies.
Blockades may be on the news, but the new joint ventures, long-term training programs, and successful Indigenous businesses are what will reshape our common future.
The fundamentals of Indigenous political and economic life have started to shift. So much remains to be done to alleviate poverty, community dysfunction and suffering, and cultural and language loss, though, that many of us overlook what First Nations and Inuit people have, in partnership with Canada, accomplished in recent decades.
Resource issues played a significant role in the debates leading up to this week’s Assembly of First Nations elections. All of the contenders for National Chief made it clear that they expected First Nations people to get better returns from future resource development.
Shawn Atleo’s re-election likely confirms the trajectory and pace of Indigenous engagement with mining and energy projects. Aboriginal leaders have started to learn to take “Yes” for an answer; Canadian governments and businesses are prepared to work with First Nations and Inuit governments and communities as partners in development.
If First Nations and Inuit leaders stay the course, and continue their collaborations, if resource companies keep their commitments and sustain their engagement, and if governments support this unprecedented pattern of cooperation, the calamities that have so long defined Aboriginal communities could start to give way.
For years, Indigenous leaders have railed against the soul-destroying elements of welfare dependency and abject poverty.
The 21st century resource boom holds the potential to set all Canadians, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal alike on a new more promising path.
Ken Coates is Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan and Brian Lee Crowley is Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a public policy think tank in Ottawa.