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Gary Mason

Native leadership for the 21st century Add to ...

Despite the impression that may have been left by the Idle No More movement, not all native leaders in Canada are waiting for the federal government to solve their problems.

If anything, the protests that dotted the landscape earlier this year highlight the growing chasm that exists between aboriginal leaders solely intent on pursuing historical grievances and a new breed that has little time for old fights and is instead focused on improving the lives of their people the old-fashioned way: through boldness and creativity.

“A growing number of aboriginal leaders – especially those blessed by geography – are unlocking the value of their lands in order to enter the economic mainstream,” says author Alex Rose. “New economic activities – LNG plants, mines, hydroelectricity, coal ports – represent a re-engagement with the modern world.”

Mr. Rose has written an upcoming book on this phenomenon entitled The New Power Brokers: Negotiating the High-Stakes Future of Aboriginal Lands and Resources. In it, he delves into the psyche of some of those native leaders who are redefining what aboriginal life means in Canada. People like Clarence Louie of the Osoyoos Indian band and Kim Baird of the Tsawwassen First Nation.

Mr. Louie assumed control of his band in the 1980s after it had declared bankruptcy and been taken over by Indian Affairs. Today, thanks to a thriving winery among other endeavours, the band reported revenue of $26-million for the last fiscal year, which included a profit of $2.4-million. Work has begun on a 360-cell correction facility that will be built on Osoyoos land. The various initiatives have meant full-time employment for hundreds of band members.

Ms. Baird, meantime, negotiated the first urban treaty in B.C. in 2008, one that will unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development potential. Tewanee Joseph is the charismatic spokesman for the Squamish First Nation of North Vancouver, a group that has parlayed valuable real-estate holdings into development riches. The announcement of first nations groups in northern B.C. partnering with private companies on an array of resource projects is now commonplace.

In the process, the driven, pragmatic chiefs that are forging many of these deals are freeing their people from the grim fate that has defined aboriginal life in this country for 150 years. This new cohort of leaders has come to realize that the dire and unpleasant conditions on their reserves are no longer an unalterable precondition of living within the confines of the Indian Act.

“No one denies for one minute the devastating effect that the twin bulldozers of colonialism and residential schools have had,” says Mr. Rose. “But to a person, these new entrepreneurs reject the politics of victimization. They also reject the hated obsequies of going hat in hand to bureaucrats in high-rise towers at Indian Affairs.”

Which may be true, but neither are many of these leaders in a hurry to cut ties with Ottawa, given all the benefits that flow from that relationship. On the one hand, they can operate like any independent town or municipality in pursuit of any business opportunity that comes along. On the other, they can still receive millions in payments from the federal government and maintain tax-free status.

“Tewanee Joseph referred to his reserve as the ‘gilded cage,’” said Mr. Rose, who has written two previous books on aboriginal affairs in Canada. “There are just too many advantages that come with living there that the idea of ever leaving is hard.”

And you wonder why there have been so few treaties signed in British Columbia.

The economic transformation under way in many of these aboriginal communities is the most significant development we have witnessed in native affairs in Canada in generations. These modern aboriginal leaders reject the notion that thriving commercial enterprises and joint ventures with non-aboriginals will lead to assimilation and the eventual destruction of their way of life.

“You’re going to lose your language and culture faster in poverty than you will in economic development,” Chief Louie says in the book. “People can’t protect their culture when they’re on welfare. A culture of dependency leads to death.”

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