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Shawn A-in-chut Atleo is the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.The Canadian Press

The debate over the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline has vaulted First Nations people and their rights to the forefront of the national discussion on energy, the environment and resource development.

This is fitting. Our lands are the backbone of the Canadian economy. Yet we have often been seen only as an obstacle or afterthought to development (when we were seen at all). Now we have an opportunity and impetus to reconcile our rights and interests and reap benefits for all Canadians.

The Northern Gateway project is capturing headlines, but it is only one of many major projects planned or under way, projects worth hundreds of billions in economic activity.

All these projects are located in or near First Nations' traditional territories. Any project that could affect their lands or lives requires their consent. This is what we agreed to in treaties and it is a reality in Canadian law.

The old approach of limited, back-end consultation must be swept away. It only leads to frustration, injunctions and conflict. The new standard, as articulated in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is "free, prior and informed consent."

From a practical standpoint, this means "engage early and engage often" with First Nations – right from conception to the last spike.

Business and industry increasingly understand this. In July, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives called for "stronger partnerships" with First Nations, citing a spectrum of positive, mutually beneficial approaches. We also see new trends toward "localnomics" – with increasing energy costs and new technologies, there is tremendous value and profit in working directly with and for local jurisdictions.

Engagement does not guarantee a green light. It must be meaningful and it must respect community values and long-term interests both for their lands and their peoples.

Together, we can create the conditions for shared success.

First, governments must be prepared to address key, long-standing issues that are holding us back. The federal government must work with First Nations to move away from the Indian Act, to honour and give life to inherent rights, title and treaties. This work is under way, but going slowly. It requires a vigorous commitment from all governments and a national framework based on treaty implementation and rights recognition. Endless negotiation and mounting legal costs on all sides serve no one. Recognizing and implementing clear constitutional duties is a necessary and sound fiscal plan for all of Canada.

Some of this work will take time. All the more reason to start now.

But there are also immediate, practical steps. We can confirm the requirement for early engagement from local projects to national discussions on a national energy strategy. We pressed this point with premiers at the recent Council of the Federation meeting. We want to review current regulatory frameworks and ensure access and support for First Nations engagement.

Productivity and competitiveness demands a stable legal environment. We can push past conflict to implementing rights through agreed upon revenue-sharing formulas, reinvestment strategies and clear requirements for engagement and agreements with First Nations before a project proceeds.

First Nations look to build capacity and partnerships that support long-term holistic community development plans. This requires approaches that are sustainable, stable and diverse enough to adapt to new requirements for future generations. We see the opportunity and need for greater support locally. Nationally, we can create tools and supports to share models, experiences and best practices for everyone's benefit.

We can unleash the full potential of our people and communities. Our people need employment and training. Our governments want the skills to develop their own proposals for resource revenue sharing, reinvestment funds, environmental monitoring and management. We must support the institutional and governing capacity of First Nations to ensure fairness and sustainability of resource revenues, and transparency and accountability so economic and social benefits flow to all members.

Canada's path to prosperity and productivity continues to run through First Nations territories. But we are the gatekeepers, the original stewards of the land. With increased legal recognition and our unrelenting resilience as peoples, we have re-emerging confidence. There is a new opportunity to foster self-reliance of local economies for the long-term. We insist on respect for the lands, sustainable approaches and a fair share of the benefits of development. We must be full participants and drivers of new sustainable and responsible economic opportunity. This is a path forward to prosperity for all, now and into the future.

Shawn A-in-chut Atleo is the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.