Until the shale gas exploration protests by members of the Elsipogtog First Nation took a nasty turn recently, the country was paying little attention to aboriginal concerns about resource activity in New Brunswick. Now Elsipogtog is Burnt Church redux, another example of angry clashes over First Nations rights.
The New Brunswick controversy has two elements. Unease about shale gas development brought many non-aboriginal people to join with the First Nations, with escalating demands for a provincial government moratorium on exploration activity. This kind of environmentalist-indigenous alliance is not uncommon; similar joint protests interrupted plans for the Enbridge pipeline project in northern British Columbia. These connections have proven shaky in the past and are not certain to endure.
The second element – the assertion that First Nations deserve a much greater role in resource development decision-making and the resulting prosperity – is much deeper and more important. Members of the Elsipogtog First Nation do not want exploratory activity to continue, insisting that their right to be consulted and accommodated starts at the first stages of development. Without greater involvement – the word "veto" is not being used officially, but it is clearly in the air – they simply see no value in allowing resource development to proceed.
Conflicts of this sort generate very predictable responses from political commentators, many of them focusing on the "missing" gratitude for all of the expensive things the government of Canada currently does for First Nations and for the concern that Canadians as a whole have for indigenous social problems. Yet everyone can see how well this is working for many aboriginal communities.
The critical response to the level of violence is appropriate; anyone who steps outside Canadian norms in pressing their case against government or business can expect condemnation. But debate about the specifics of the Elsipogtog situation shows how quickly Canadians miss the most crucial elements in the resource dispute.
Canada is in the midst of a nationwide resource boom. To a degree that urban and southern Canadians generally fail to understand, this country's current and future prosperity rests on the proper and systematic development of the country's natural endowments. Wait a few years – if opponents of oil-sands pipelines and mining projects win the day and resource developments stall, the country's fiscal health will suffer severely, with significant effects on the economy and government-funded programs.
Contrary to the assumptions arising out of the New Brunswick situation, First Nations are not automatically opposed to resource development. Canada has some of the world's best arrangements connecting indigenous peoples and resource developments. Even British Columbia, long a stalwart opponent of indigenous rights, now shares resource revenues with aboriginal peoples. There are numerous impact and benefit agreements between mining companies and aboriginal communities. Aboriginal development corporations have assembled hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and annual business revenue from their work on resource projects. First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities are eager for proper work for their people and have worked extremely hard to make appropriate deals with developers.
As Elsipogtog shows, however, aboriginal people also drive hard bargains. First Nations are not swayed by vague promises of downstream jobs – they have rarely materialized in the past and have seldom lasted long – and they know that each community has only a tiny number of opportunities to capitalize on resource developments. They worry about the local environment, far more so than people who live far away from the mines and development sites. They want to participate in planning, oversight, extraction and remediation.
The New Brunswick situation also shows the difficulties of operating in a non-treaty environment. Consider the situation in the Maritimes, which have only 18th-century peace and friendship treaties and nothing equivalent to a modern Canadian-indigenous treaty. In those jurisdictions that do, such as the Yukon, Northwest Territories, northern Quebec and Labrador, governments, business and indigenous peoples have clear responsibilities and rights laid out in modern and comprehensive agreements. People know the rules; aboriginal people follow them.
In places like Elsipogtog, First Nations have the imprecise arrangements spelled out by the Supreme Court of Canada in its Haida and Taku River decisions. As a result of these judgments, governments and corporations have a duty to consult and accommodate, important requirements that are not yet spelled out fully in administrative and political practice.
In the absence of formal structures and processes – modern treaties or other political arrangements – the disadvantages of conflicts over resource development fall disproportionately on the aboriginal communities, which do not have the financial and technical capabilities of the resource companies and governments.
Canada can and must get this right. Properly done, aboriginal engagement with resource development could be the trigger for greater aboriginal participation in national prosperity. If we do not get it right, we will see additional Elsipogtog-type conflicts across the country and hundreds of additional court challenges that interfere with economic development.
The country can start in the Maritimes, by developing interim protocols covering aboriginal participation in resource developments while work continues on a proper modern treaty. While violence cannot be countenanced in any circumstance, Canadians can at least recognize that the frustrations in Elsipogtog and the Maritimes reflect deeply held aboriginal concerns about Canadian resource development.
Ken Coates is senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan. Brian Lee Crowley is the MLI's managing director. They are authors of New Beginnings: How Canada's Natural Resource Wealth Could Re-shape Relations with Aboriginal People.