First Nations protesters are silhouetted against a flag at an ‘Idle No More’ demonstration in Toronto, Jan. 16, 2013. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

First nations’ growing voice pressures resource sector

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

Canada’s energy and mining companies are facing new challenges from first nations that are demanding the right to approve all resource projects on traditional territories and to participate in the revenues.

Saskatchewan Regional Chief Perry Bellegarde on Wednesday called on governments not to approve leases or other exploration rights unless companies can demonstrate they have properly consulted local aboriginal communities. He said resource companies should bring first nations into their planning at the earliest possible stages, and be prepared to treat them as full partners in development.

“We have to be involved in the economy – fully and no longer marginalized,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “Because if we keep talking about self-determination as indigenous peoples, that’s got to be linked to self-sufficiency.”

Spurred by “Idle No More” protests, many of the country’s chiefs met last week with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who committed to work more closely with them on treaty rights and economic development.

Chief Bellegarde is the lead spokesman for the Assembly of First Nations on treaty rights, and his comments echo demands from chiefs and protesters alike that aboriginal people must be given greater control over their traditional territory.

Ottawa has estimated there is $650-billion worth of resource projects that could be undertaken in the next decade, but virtually all of them involve native land claims or treaty rights, and will require companies and governments at the very least to consult and accommodate first nations before shovels can go into the ground.

First nations are increasingly resorting to legal challenges and direct action – such as protests and blockades of railroads and major highways – and some chiefs are threatening to disrupt economic activity to back their demands for a better deal from Canada.

Aboriginal leaders want the federal government to lead provinces and territories toward changes that would provide a share of resource revenues to their communities to finance social and economic development.

“The feds can help drive it in terms of a national strategy working with the premiers and first nations people throughout the different territories and provinces,” Mr. Bellegarde said. “Under treaty, we didn’t cede, surrender or relinquish everything – we agreed to share the land and resources,” he said.

But Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall said Ottawa has little role in the discussion of resource revenue sharing since it provinces own resources under Canada’s constitution. And he ruled out any deal to dedicate a share of his province’s substantial resource revenue with first nations.

“Our position will remain unchanged as long as I am premier, as long as this government is in office, that there will be no special deals for any group regardless of that group in terms of natural resource revenue sharing,” Mr. Wall told reporters in Regina. The premier said aboriginal Canadians benefit from the allocation of that revenue into roads, schools and hospitals, just as non-aboriginals do.

However, the premier said he is determined to see first nations participate more fully in the province’s economy, especially with greater education and training.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan agreed that the provinces will have to deal directly with first nations on revenue sharing. But the federal minister said Ottawa will work with the provinces and industry to ensure aboriginal Canadians benefit fully from the looming opportunities offered by Canada’s resource boom.

“We’re on the right track but we’re not sitting on the status quo,” Mr. Duncan said.

“This is what got everybody’s attention is that we need these projects to move forward,” he said in an interview. “And in order for these projects to move forward, we need to be able to do it in partnership and collaboration. What the first nations are asking for is what we actually need to move forward.”

Despite Mr. Duncan’s hopeful attitude, aboriginal Canadians are increasingly impatient for real economic progress. And as political impasse threatens, Canada’s resources companies face the risk of being caught in a maelstrom that will make project development far tougher, especially since many aboriginal communities are opposed to the federal government’s legislation that streamlined environmental reviews for resource projects.

Companies already face obligations to work with first nations as part of the constitutional requirement to “consult and accommodate.” Native leaders want to extend that obligation to the need to obtain “free, prior and informed consent” as spelled out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. (Ottawa endorsed the declaration but with a reservation that rejected the requirement for “consent.”)

Oil and gas companies have a long history of such consultations, and they don’t expect that to change, said David Pryce, vice-president at the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers.

“We’re going to have to operate on the premise of business as usual and we’ll see whether or not there are things individual companies need to deal with as they go about that,” he said.

In the mining industry, companies routinely negotiate impact benefit agreements, said Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada. Mr. Gratton acknowledged many first nations are becoming more interested in equity stakes and full partnerships.