Blogs & Comment

A brighter native future starts with development

Financial self-sufficiency must come first.

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo brushes off questions from reporters as he makes his way to a meeting with Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence on Victoria Island in Ottawa on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

Are aboriginal Canadians holding the country hostage? There were times over the past few weeks when it felt like it. Especially when commuters were prevented from getting to work, or when Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs warned that the Idle No More movement was strong enough “to put a stop to resources development in Canada until we get what we need to break the chains of poverty.”

It’s tempting to see the ongoing protest as a simple us-versus-them situation, with aboriginal leaders such as Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence on one side and the rest of Canada on the other. But the current battle is actually much less defined—with both natives and non-natives in both camps.

Much of the battle is, in fact, taking place within the aboriginal community itself, between those who believe the solution to aboriginal poverty lies in the past, and those who believe it lies in the future. The first group is more conservative and wants to protect the land from development at all costs. They may not actually believe they can return to subsistence fishing, but they see heritage and tradition as trumping all other considerations, even if it means relying on the federal government for financial support indefinitely.

The second group believes there is no returning to the glory days when aboriginals lived off the land—any more than Europeans could suddenly return to the way they lived centuries ago. Members of this camp, which includes progressives such as National Chief Shawn Atleo, say the solution is to focus on eliminating the barriers preventing aboriginals from enjoying the standard of living that most other Canadians enjoy today.

I side with the latter group. I know that terrible injustices have been committed against our aboriginal communities, but financial self-sufficiency must come first. Once that is achieved, native Canadians will be able to take pride in both their rich history and their current situation. And in order to achieve that independence, they need access to the same education system, infrastructure, property rights and—most important— jobs that the rest of Canadians do.

Those who believe that salvation for aboriginals comes from returning to the land usually want to shut down development altogether. But those who want native Canadians to enjoy modern lives realize that actively participating in projects such as oil pipelines could result in millions, perhaps billions, of dollars in much-needed new revenue to produce strong, independent native communities with modern infrastructure, schools and jobs.

Rather than being the enemy, big business in Canada could be part of the solution. But only if the bounty from any development is shared in a fair and equitable manner. For that to happen, the Harper government should continue to enact legislation lowering the barriers to such development (such as the provisions in Bill C-45 that allow for more development involving navigable waterways and on reserves), but it must also ensure there is adequate legal protection that ensure aboriginals get their share of the resulting wealth.

If the Idle No More movement results in progress toward native communities fully participating in and profiting from the development of Canada’s natural resources, then I support it wholeheartedly. But if it is hijacked by those who want to protect the land for a way of life that is no longer sustainable, then it will never succeed.

Duncan Hood is the editor of Canadian Business.