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Brendon Grant’s Haisla connections to industry helped him land a job in the financial services industry in San Diego.Photo by Sam Hodgson

Two months ago, 23-year-old Brendon Grant left his northern British Columbia hometown for San Diego, where he now lives a 10-minute jog from La Jolla beach. He moved south to start work as a junior analyst with RA Capital Advisors LLC, a private investment bank that has worked on more than $60-billion in financial transactions. Next month, he intends to start training toward becoming an investment banker.

Mr. Grant is Haisla, and his is not a traditional career path for a young person whose grandfather taught him to fish salmon and halibut.

But there is a seismic change shaking the economic foundations of the Haisla – and indeed, first nations across Canada. It's a change that will have ripple effects all over the country and profound implications on whether the large-scale resource projects that provinces are looking at as an economic panacea move ahead.

For the Haisla, it is natural gas, and a rush to build tens of billions of dollars in new export terminals near Kitimat, B.C., to connect western gas fields with Asian consumers. Elsewhere in Canada, a resource rush to develop mineral, potash, uranium and oil sands resources has brought industry knocking on the doors of numerous first nations, thrusting aboriginal Canada into an unprecedented crush of conflict and opportunity.

For people such as Mr. Grant, the rush has provided remarkable possibility: After graduating with a commerce degree, he discovered a clearer path to the halls of high finance through the Haisla, whose negotiations with multinational energy companies have led it to develop business connections with firms such as RA Capital. "I tried to do the conventional route, but then I just knew I had to tap into my resources, which was my network," Mr. Grant said.

At the same time, the Haisla find themselves in a bitter battle against another development – the plans by Enbridge Inc. to carry oil sands crude to the Kitimat area on the Northern Gateway pipeline, which would fill Asia-bound tankers that would, the Haisla say, devastate the northern B.C. coast in the event of a spill.

In that tension lies the story of Canada's first nations today, who are moving to select a new national Assembly of First Nations leader in Toronto next week against a backdrop of rapidly changing concerns. For decades, health care, education and residential schools have dominated the first nations agenda. Now, a series of projects – mines in Ontario and Quebec, potash plants in Saskatchewan, oil sands operations in Alberta, pipelines and natural gas export terminals in British Columbia – have begun to rewrite the priorities for aboriginal Canadians, shifting the focus onto resource development and setting the future agenda for whoever is elected to lead the AFN.

The battle for control of resource development in ancestral territories is not new to indigenous people. But it has become more intense as resource companies move into remote regions, as treaty processes fail to yield results, and as the focus of first nations leaders transitions from the grievances of the past to the possibilities of the future. After the government apologized for the abuses of the residential school system, many first nations people said the damage cannot be undone but it is time to move on to other issues – especially their interest in controlling resource development on their lands.

That is especially true for a new generation of first nations youth who are tired of living in poverty.

The development of the Northern Gateway pipeline is just one front in what promises to be a prolonged battle as first nations press for control of resource development on their land. And native leaders say the next national chief of the AFN must be their champion.

They want someone who is ready to defend their interests, to demand their fair share of resource revenues, and to put a halt to development they consider damaging to their environment, their heritage and their way of life.

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.

Pam Palmater, one of the candidates for Mr. Atleo's job who teaches indigenous studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, said a frank discussion about treaty rights and revenue sharing cannot even begin if the government's ultimate objective remains "assimilation, integration, sameness will all other Canadians." It is an objective she says the government does not even try to hide.

Ellen Gabriel, another candidate who grew up in Kanesetake and was a spokeswoman for her people during the Oka crisis, said the fact that little has changed since that time is creating a new generation of more militant youth, which could become a problem for a government that would rather provoke first nations than negotiate solutions.

"I think it's a matter of holding them to the rule of law," she said. "What we need to do is hold them accountable and make them responsible for the kind of chaos that they are creating within indigenous communities and within the environment itself."

But another part of the issue is driven by corporate Canada – and those who have worked with large energy corporations say the blame lies not just with first nations, but with companies.

"First nations can have significant value for a project. But today, many industries see them as an obstacle or a risk," said Roger Harris, a B.C. consultant who spent two years working on the aboriginal file for Northern Gateway.

Enbridge, for its part, has said it is offering more than $1-billion in benefits to first nations through Northern Gateway. The company "will have officials present" at the AFN election, spokesman Todd Nogier wrote in an e-mail. "We look forward to developing a positive, productive and mutually beneficial relationship with whomever the Assembly of First Nations select as their National Chief."

Other Pertinent Issues with Candidates

Shawn AtleoIncumbent national chief of the Assembly of First Nations. He is a hereditary chief of Ahousaht First Nation on Vancouver Island.


Education, youth and empowering local chiefs.

Bill Erasmus

Long-time chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and the AFN's regional chief of the Northwest Territories.

Issues:Empower existing land treaties and earn sovereignty through a unified national voice.

Ellen Gabriel

Member of the Kanesatake Mohawk Nation and former leader of the Quebec Native Women's Association.

Issues:Revitalizing indigenous languages, education and governing structures.

Joan Jack

Lawyer from the Berens River First Nation in Manitoba and helped found the Nakina Centre for Aboriginal Living and Learning.

Issues:Prioritizing indigenous languages, letting regions drive the AFN's national agenda.

Pamela Palmater

Lawyer and the chair in indigenous governance at Ryerson University. She is originally from the Eel River Bar First Nation in New Brunswick.

Issues:Focusing on people, not politics, and education, health and justice.

George Stanley

Fifth-generation chief and is the regional chief of Alberta. He is a member of the Frog Lake First Nation.

Issues:Protecting treaty rights and pressing for self-reliance.

Terrance Nelson

Spent five terms as chief of Roseau River Anishinabe First Nation in Manitoba. He is vice-chairman of the American Indian Movement.

Issues:Reversing funding cuts to first nations made by the Harper government.

Diane M. Kelly

Lawyer and was the first female grand chief of Grand Council Treaty 3. She is from the Ojibways of Onigaming First Nation in Ontario.

Issues:Protecting the spirit and intent of treaties and asserting rights and jurisdictions.