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thought leaders

The Globe and Mail has sought out a series of columns from thought leaders in Western Canada, people whose influence is shaping debate but whose names may not be widely recognized.

The deplorable economic condition of First Nations in Canada is a source of shame and frustration for Canadians and a black eye in the country's international reputation.

When First Nations peoples welcomed newcomers to their homelands and signed treaties, it was never contemplated that our people would be prevented from making a livelihood. Chiefs who negotiated treaties sought assurances for education for their children, tools to make a living, and continued access to traditional lands for an enriched livelihood. They did not ask for welfare or dependency, nor was it ever contemplated that the vast riches of our lands would be exploited to the exclusion of their descendants.

The only way to break the cycle of poverty is to negotiate deliberate economic space for First Nations peoples to participate in the Canadian economy as business owners and employees. Sidelining First Nations from the economy results in conflicts with development of new resource projects and ultimately damages the Canadian economy with delays or cancellations. Canadian leaders in business, government and academia need to look for consensual strategies for integrating First Nations peoples into the economy.

This can be achieved by insisting all developments of resources in traditional lands include participation of First Nations as providers of goods and services, employees and equity owners in development. Canada can look to other international examples such as the Maori of New Zealand who successfully compete in the dairy industry with negotiated rights to participate in the dairy market. Licensing powers or opportunities to occupy economic space have also resulted in great success in Canada: Gambling in Saskatchewan has created thousands of jobs and distribution of hundreds of millions into community programs.

The recent Supreme Court decision affirming the right of the Tsilhqot'in to control development within their traditional lands was met with nervousness by industry and governments. But this decision is an opportunity that Canada should embrace as a chance to re-establish balance in aboriginal-Canada relations, and ensuring that future developments result in a sharing of the benefits and wealth generated on both Tsilhqot'in lands and other lands across Canada. This decision will result in the Tsilhqot'in Nations developing the terms for investment and environmental protections on their traditional lands according to their prerogative, and in the process, define how economic space will emerge in B.C. and other regions of Canada. One hopes that future developments in Canada will not again see multibillion-dollar resource projects creating national wealth on traditional lands where First Nations people live with condemned houses, substandard water and an economy based on community welfare day.

There are many positive examples of green shoots of collaboration with industry. First Nations and industry are to be commended for the many innovative joint ventures, partnerships, equity participation, employment and training initiatives which they have organically developed. This move to defining economic space is in its embryonic stage but to grow into a mature area of the economy, there needs to be a co-ordinated strategy between industry, training institutions, governments and First Nations. Without one, the cost of delay for these projects will be massive in terms of damage to the economy and as a source of future conflict between First Nations and Canada.

From the First Nations perspective, some hope has emerged that jobs and opportunity associated with development will ease the shameful poverty of their people. After a casino opened in Saskatoon, the reality of how economic space for First Nations affects the grassroots level was described by an inner-city school principal who commended the efforts to create these opportunities. This principal noted that he could tell which of his students' parents worked at the new casino. These children now came to school with new shoes and packed lunches, and as consequence were proud and more successful in school.

My wish for Canada, industry and First Nations is they consensually find the courage to balance the interests of the environment and commerce, and in doing so build a stronger Canada. The rising tide associated with development of the nation's natural resources has not lifted the well-being of First Nations. Without the deliberate recognition of economic space and shared resource benefits, the lives and hopes of First Nations will continue to flounder, but so now will those of Canada.

As chairman of One Earth Oil and Gas, Blaine Favel's company pursues oil and gas exploration and development in partnership with aboriginal people. Mr. Favel, a Calgary lawyer and Harvard MBA, is the former grand chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and a former chief of the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. He is also chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan.