Shawn Atleo, the incumbent AFN national chief who is running again, is facing an anyone-but-Atleo challenge, with seven candidates vying for the top job. For many of those challengers, resource revenue sharing will be key to solving some of first nations’ continuing social issues.
Joan Jack, an Ojibway lawyer from Berens River First Nation in Manitoba, says the economic emancipation that could come with revenue sharing will not be the solution to all of the problems facing first nations, but it will help. “It is very, very, very difficult living with the poverty that our people face on a daily basis and we are certainly not prospering from our territories in the way that our ancestors intended,” she said.
Diane Kelly, another candidate who is also a lawyer and a former grand chief of the Grand Council of Treaty 3 in northwest Ontario and eastern Manitoba, points to the troubles in the remote and impoverished Ontario community of Attawapiskat that made national and international headlines last year. “All those deplorable social conditions, the lack of housing, the infrastructure, even the school building, on and on and on,” Ms. Kelly said. “What needs to happen is resource revenue sharing has to take place.”
But, with more than 600 first nations across Canada, each with their own leadership and direction, there are divergent opinions about what kinds of activities are acceptable. While most chiefs will say they do not oppose development, some are more concerned about the long-term costs of resource extraction. Inside the race for AFN chief, there is only cautious discussion around the promise of development, one that belies how sensitive the issue is.
In some cases, development done right has meant great gains for first nation businesses.The diamond mines in Canada’s north, for example, have supported dozens of such businesses.
In recent years, the majority of trucks on the famed ice road supply route have been moved by first nations-owned businesses. One study found Northwest Territories diamond mines provided $600-million in revenues to native corporations in 2007 alone.
And in Northern Ontario, the Ring of Fire development promises huge mineral wealth. But the open-pit mine in a sensitive wetland could mean the potentially toxic releases of heavy metals as well as major changes to hydrology. And Chief Peter Moonias of the Neskantaga First Nation has said “they will have to kill me first,” when talking about the construction of a 340-kilometre road to the site through undeveloped wilderness that the government wants to construct without the environmental assessment of a negotiated Joint Review Panel. The national chief of the AFN will have to stand with the Neskantaga against the forces that would press for that type of development without consultation, Mr. Moonias said.
Mr. Atleo’s critics say his tenure has been marked by too much co-operation with governments and too little combat when that is what was required. First nations across Canada have criticized the AFN for being deaf to local concerns. On resource development, especially, local bands are eager to see more national engagement on an issue that presents similar concerns from coast to coast. Some see a pressing need for national leadership to play more of a role in advocacy.
On the North Shore of Burrard Inlet in B.C., for example, the Tsleil-Waututh Nation has spoken out against the expansion of an oil pipeline from Alberta to the Lower Mainland, plans that would allow greater volumes of oil sands crude to be loaded onto ocean-going tankers. A spill would turn the Vancouver harbour, and the waters beyond, into a “dead zone,” said Leonard George, a former chief and current head of the first nation’s economic development arm.
The Tsleil-Waututh are “taking on the issue for all British Columbians,” he said. The rights accorded first nations give them, in many ways, a stronger ability to oppose industrial development than large cities, or even provinces.
So “first nations rights can be an asset to all Canadians,” he said – and key to that is greater engagement on the national stage by the AFN.