The Lax Kw'alaams raised eyebrows when the B.C. north coast native band opened up its own trade office in Beijing in 2009. This year, the band's forestry company expects to do nearly $40-million in sales with China, filling nine shiploads of logs at the port of Prince Rupert.
"Some people looked at us and said, 'are you guys crazy?' " said Wayne Drury, chief executive officer for Coast Tsimshian Resources. Today, the company wants to help other aboriginal communities get their foot in the door, as it expands into markets in Korea, Japan and India. "We saw the opportunity, but you can't build relationships from 10,000 miles away."
On Tuesday, the B.C. First Nations Summit and the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada are unveiling a province-wide initiative on China, emulating that strategy in a broader fashion.
The First Nations-China Desk is a portal to help native communities gain access to markets for their forestry and fishery products – at a time when China is emerging as a key customer. In May, for the first time, China surpassed the United States in the value of shipments for B.C. lumber exports.
But the band trade office will also help Chinese investors navigate the unfamiliar territory of doing business in a province where resource development is often clouded by unsettled native land claims.
"There is a perception out there that our people are out to block everything," said Ed John, grand chief of the First Nations Summit. "That's not the case, but if you are coming to our house, you better knock first."
While China and Canada aim to double current trade levels to $60-billion by 2015, native bands have exacted little benefit from B.C.'s Pacific Gateway strategy.
Mr. John is spearheading an effort to change that. He has completed four trade missions to China, and in October, he'll go back to help raise a five-metre-tall totem pole created by B.C. aboriginal youth for the Qiang people, a gift to commemorate thousands of deaths in the Chinese city of Beichuan in the 2008 earthquake in the Sichuan province.
He said governments and businesses rarely include reserves in their trade mission efforts in China, but the aboriginal cultural exchanges have proven valuable.
"When our drums and regalia come out, the tone in the room changes completely. The Chinese understand culture and tradition," he said. "We are creating our own opportunities here." The key, he said, lies in educating investors on the need to secure "informed consent" from the bands – even in a province where the government doesn't always recognize that standard.
Yuen Pau Woo, president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, said B.C. native bands can help unlock significant investments in the province, but he said Chinese investors all too often discover aboriginal interests only after conflict arises.
"There is a lot of ignorance about the role first nations play in resource development projects in British Columbia," he said. "Most Chinese investors probably come across this issue after the fact, when they have proceeded with plans to partner with mainstream Canadian companies."
Securing certainty by working with native bands can unlock new economic development potential, Mr. Woo said. "I think we are talking about billions of dollars."
British Columbia's native communities have often been, at best, reactive to Chinese investment in energy and mining projects.
But that is starting to change. The Kaska Dena Council in Northern B.C. is in the final stages of a deal with a Chinese company to open a silver mine in its traditional territories, and is negotiating with two other mining companies.
The council's chief negotiator, Dave Porter, said the terms are groundbreaking in scope. There is compensation for the impact on the band's aboriginal rights and title, as well as a share of all money spent on exploration. "It's a significant breakthrough in the area of profit-sharing," he said. "More of that can happen if first nations are approached in the right way."