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First nations in B.C. are sitting on millions of cubic meters of wood, but they don’t benefit without access to markets.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

In the past five years, Chinese companies have invested billions in Canadian energy projects, sparking public debate over whether these deals are of "net benefit" to Canada. What is rarely considered is how Chinese investment will benefit first nations, on whose traditional territories many energy development projects take place.

China is increasingly in need of natural resources to fuel its rapid urbanization and economic expansion. Under the right circumstances, Chinese investment has a great deal to offer Canada's first nations, who claim millions of cubic kilometres of resource-rich lands. But there are challenges.

Chinese government officials and business owners are generally unaware that first nations have rights and title to specific lands in Canada and must be consulted on energy development projects. Furthermore, provincial and federal initiatives to market Canada's natural resources in Asia do not adequately assist first nations in accessing markets. British Columbia has spent millions promoting the forest industry in Asia, and China is now the province's No. 1 forest export market. First nations in B.C. are sitting on millions of cubic meters of wood, but they don't benefit without access to markets.

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Solving these issues requires a proactive approach. In the past few years, B.C. first nations have developed a first nations-China strategy to respond to the rise of Asia, particularly China. As part of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada's newly launched National Conversation on Asia, this strategy has been guided in consultation with Asia experts and policy leaders across Canada.

Overall, the aim of this partnership model is simple: to ensure that first nations communities benefit from investment and that, if development occurs, it's based on their view of sustainable development. The strategy aims to create not only business opportunities between first nations and China but also cultural understanding.

Next steps include:

• Building capacity for first nations to interact with Chinese clients by creating cultural and educational opportunities for first nations youth, elders and businesses. The First Nations Leadership Council has already established relationships with two universities in China;

• Developing best practices for Chinese companies that promote adequate consultation and collaboration with first nations;

• Establishing a first nations-China desk in B.C. to help first nations access the Chinese market and to respond to inquiries from Chinese companies seeking to partner with first nations communities and businesses;

• Creating a unified branding message highlighting that first nations are open to responsible and equitable business projects;

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• Undertaking annual trade missions for first nations to China and Chinese representatives to B.C. and Canada. Such a visit will take place in October.

While first nations must take the lead on guiding their economic future, support from the provincial and federal governments is crucial. For example, the First Nations Leadership Council looks forward to collaborating with these governments to create internship programs for first nations youth in Canadian trade offices in China. Both Canada and China support the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which states that indigenous peoples must provide their consent to activities on their traditional territories. This UN declaration is a foundation to build a co-operative relationship between first nations and the governments of Canada and China.

This China strategy does not mean that first nations have closed their doors to domestic industry. First nations remain committed to working collaboratively with Canadian companies. The First Nation Energy and Mining Council has developed a strategy, Sharing the Wealth, that provides guidelines for companies to follow in engaging with first nations. There are also many opportunities for three-way partnerships among first nations, the Canadian private sector and Chinese enterprises.

China is reaching out to place strategic investments in Canada and around the world. In B.C., many of the resources that Chinese investors seek can be found on first nations lands. By taking a proactive approach, first nations in B.C. can create positive partnerships with Chinese businesses that will benefit all Canadians.

Edward John is grand chief of the B.C. First Nations Summit. Yuen Pau Woo is president of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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