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jeffrey simpson

Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson.The Globe and Mail

The Trudeau government wants to improve the lot of aboriginal peoples in Canada. It wishes to elevate their economic standing, give them more control over their own lives, improve their often lamentable social circumstances and engage in "nation-to-nation" relationships.

How a "nation-to-nation" relationship is supposed to work between Canada, with 36 million people, and more than 600 indigenous nations, often with fewer than 1,000 people, remains one of Canada's policy mysteries. It is one of those phrases that falls off political tongues, but is made difficult when confronted by reality.

That reality is made murkier by disagreements across Canada about who "owns" or has ultimate title to land, disagreements fuelled by court decisions that have been interpreted by indigenous groups as giving them title, even without a proven claim.

Nonetheless, "nation-to-nation" relations is the government's stated goal. To that end, government ministers are pondering some sort of formula that would offer or guarantee indigenous peoples a share of revenue projects within, say, a certain fiscal band. Whether this formula would be a non-binding framework, or something with more teeth, is unclear.

The law requires that aboriginal groups must be "consulted" if anything is to be done on "their" land. Just what is "their" land, of course, often remains unclear.

In British Columbia, for example, the leading aboriginal associations read into Supreme Court rulings that their people have title over all "Crown" land, so that nothing can be done anywhere without their consent. Consultation means consent.

The B.C. government does not obviously agree with this interpretation of the Supreme Court's latest ruling. It argues that title has been limited to defined chunks of territory flowing from case-by-case claims.

Of potentially great significance, the federal Minister of Justice, Jody Wilson-Raybould, before entering politics, used to argue forcefully for the definition of title espoused by the aboriginal associations. If Ms. Wilson-Raybould were to make her previous position Ottawa's new official position in court cases, this would be a radical departure from previous government positions, federal and provincial.

The idea of a federal framework, or policy guideline, or whatever it turns out to be, presumes that aboriginal people want natural-resource development. This is often, but not always, true.

Working agreements between aboriginal groups and companies exist all across Canada, some of long standing. The current leadership of the Assembly of First Nations touts resource development as a key to economic advancement for aboriginal people. After all, the Natural Resources Department has estimated that over $675-billion in natural-resources opportunities are expected over the next decade.

It is a pity that most coverage of aboriginal-business affairs focuses on conflict, because there are many examples of co-operation and long-term understandings. It has been estimated that more than 300 agreements exist between aboriginal communities and mining companies. These bring jobs, training, money, a wage economy and hope to aboriginal communities.

And yet, a division exists sometimes within, sometimes between or among, aboriginal communities about whether to participate in resource development. The opponents or doubters get all the attention. They launch court cases. They hold press conferences and garner media attention. They issue flaming denunciations. They demonstrate. They denounce governments and companies. They don't want resource development, period, seeing it as threat to their "traditional" way of life.

These opponents and doubters are joined and reinforced by environmentalists who themselves do not want most resource developments, whether these be mines, dams and hydro lines, liquefied natural gas terminals, fossil-fuel exploitation, tanker traffic.

All these tensions, and more, are on display around the tragicomic delays and debates around the Pacific Northwest liquified natural gas project in B.C. The aboriginal groups along the proposed gas pipeline are in favour, as are some near the terminal.

But the Lax Kw'alaam group on the coast was opposed, until the newly elected council changed its mind, provided it participated in an environmental review panel. Fine, at last, said the B.C. government.

Except that some of the hereditary chiefs from one tribe of the band denounced the elected council's decision. They claim "sovereign rights" over the terminal site, rights not tested in court but, as is often the case, simply claimed. They don't want the project, period.

The questions from this saga therefore arise. Which is the "nation" in this case? Who speaks for it? Who owns the land? What does "consultation" mean? Can resource developments get done at all or in a remotely timely fashion in Canada?

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