Two months ago, 23-year-old Brendon Grant left his northern British Columbia hometown for San Diego, where he now lives a 10-minute jog from La Jolla beach. He moved south to start work as a junior analyst with RA Capital Advisors LLC, a private investment bank that has worked on more than $60-billion in financial transactions. Next month, he intends to start training toward becoming an investment banker.
Mr. Grant is Haisla, and his is not a traditional career path for a young person whose grandfather taught him to fish salmon and halibut.
But there is a seismic change shaking the economic foundations of the Haisla – and indeed, first nations across Canada. It’s a change that will have ripple effects all over the country and profound implications on whether the large-scale resource projects that provinces are looking at as an economic panacea move ahead.
For the Haisla, it is natural gas, and a rush to build tens of billions of dollars in new export terminals near Kitimat, B.C., to connect western gas fields with Asian consumers. Elsewhere in Canada, a resource rush to develop mineral, potash, uranium and oil sands resources has brought industry knocking on the doors of numerous first nations, thrusting aboriginal Canada into an unprecedented crush of conflict and opportunity.
For people such as Mr. Grant, the rush has provided remarkable possibility: After graduating with a commerce degree, he discovered a clearer path to the halls of high finance through the Haisla, whose negotiations with multinational energy companies have led it to develop business connections with firms such as RA Capital. “I tried to do the conventional route, but then I just knew I had to tap into my resources, which was my network,” Mr. Grant said.
At the same time, the Haisla find themselves in a bitter battle against another development – the plans by Enbridge Inc. to carry oil sands crude to the Kitimat area on the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would fill Asia-bound tankers that would, the Haisla say, devastate the northern B.C. coast in the event of a spill.
In that tension lies the story of Canada’s first nations today, who are moving to select a new national Assembly of First Nations leader in Toronto next week against a backdrop of rapidly changing concerns. For decades, health care, education and residential schools have dominated the first nations agenda. Now, a series of projects – mines in Ontario and Quebec, potash plants in Saskatchewan, oil sands operations in Alberta, pipelines and natural gas export terminals in British Columbia – have begun to rewrite the priorities for aboriginal Canadians, shifting the focus onto resource development and setting the future agenda for whoever is elected to lead the AFN.
The battle for control of resource development in ancestral territories is not new to indigenous people. But it has become more intense as resource companies move into remote regions, as treaty processes fail to yield results, and as the focus of first nations leaders transitions from the grievances of the past to the possibilities of the future. After the government apologized for the abuses of the residential school system, many first nations people said the damage cannot be undone but it is time to move on to other issues – especially their interest in controlling resource development on their lands.
That is especially true for a new generation of first nations youth who are tired of living in poverty.
The development of the Northern Gateway pipeline is just one front in what promises to be a prolonged battle as first nations press for control of resource development on their land. And native leaders say the next national chief of the AFN must be their champion.
They want someone who is ready to defend their interests, to demand their fair share of resource revenues, and to put a halt to development they consider damaging to their environment, their heritage and their way of life.