TORONTO – Neither Canada’s premiers nor the federal government should think they can forge a national energy policy without First Nations at the table as an equal partner, says the newly re-elected national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.
A reinvigorated Shawn Atleo is heading to Halifax next week to meet with the premiers — his first major foray since winning a second three-year term in a divisive contest that saw harsh criticism of Atleo’s co-operative approach to politics.
With chief after chief urging him to stand up for a larger First Nations share of Canada’s natural resource wealth, Atleo heads into the Council of the Federation meeting with an unshakable mandate to demand a spot at the table.
“This government, every government, must deal with First Nations as full partners,” Atleo said Thursday, the day after his third-ballot win at the AFN’s general assembly in Toronto.
“All those natural resources that the government wants to open up for development, First Nations have to be dealt with. It’s time that that happened.”
The premiers are expected to discuss moving ahead with a national energy strategy piloted by Alberta that would form a common approach to developing, marketing and sustaining energy resources.
The Western premiers are already backing the vision put forward by Alberta’s Alison Redford, who was in Toronto earlier this week meeting with Ontario counterpart Dalton McGuinty in order to push her plan.
Ontario’s backing is not guaranteed, however: the province balked at Alberta’s plan a year ago over the West’s insistence that oilsands were “sustainable.”
McGuinty said Thursday that he and Redford have found a way to clear the air.
“I think we have found a lot of common ground, and among other things, we are determined to ensure that Ontarians understand that they have a vested interest in the continuing growth and prosperity of Alberta, just as Albertans have a vested interested in the continuing growth and prosperity of Ontarians,” McGuinty said.
“We need to recognize that we need to work together to develop our energy capacity here in Canada.”
Momentum towards a national plan is coming from Ottawa too.
A Conservative-led Senate committee put forward a plan Thursday for a national approach to energy, calling it an urgent priority if Canada is to keep its competitive edge.
The committee urged governments at all levels to come together quickly and make sure they were not stepping on each other’s toes or standing in each other’s way in developing natural resources.
The report envisions shipping Canada’s oil east as well as through the West, all the while developing mega-projects in hydro and investing in renewable fuels.
The report does not, however, address climate change — prompting criticism from Greenpeace and other environmentalists.
And when it comes to First Nations, the report recognized the frustration felt by business and First Nations alike over unclear processes and timelines around consultation and resource exploitation.
But the senators stopped short of making a commitment to make First Nations equal partners in negotiations.
“It’s important that First Nations not simply be an afterthought,” said Atleo.
He pointed out that Canada had signed on to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which gives First Nations the right to “free, prior and informed consent” on anything to do with resource development.
None of Canada’s processes fully respect that right, and the federal government’s recent overhaul of environmental assessment and fisheries regulations are a further setback that First Nations won’t accept, he added.
Backed by increasingly restless chiefs who see natural resource wealth as their rightful ticket to prosperity, Atleo warned politicians at all levels that his people are ready to play hardball if they are not accepted as true partners.
Indeed, the Assembly of First Nations took a step in that direction Thursday when they passed a resolution backing an eviction of mining companies in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire metals deposit.
Several chiefs met with the Ontario government on Wednesday to ask for a moratorium on work in the Ring of Fire area so that they could be properly consulted on the way forward, well before operations actually begin.
“You don’t do it after. You do it prior,” said Chief Sonny Gagnon of the Aroland First Nation.
Chiefs also want government funding to pay for their own experts to examine the effects of the mining development.
Their requests were rejected, Gagnon said.
So the next step is to make good on an eviction noticed issued earlier this month, giving companies a month to leave or else face a blockade.
The AFN backed this approach in their resolution on Thursday.
“Right now, we’re being bullied by a mining company, a giant mining company in a desperate province,” said Chris Moonias, a band councillor from the Neskantaga First Nation.
Companies, too, have had enough. Earlier this week, the country’s top chief executives released a report for premiers asking them to make aboriginal peoples full partners in resource talks, and fund them so they can participate in a meaningful way.
“This is where First Nations will take our rightful place,” Atleo said.
“We will shape a future and a vision, which is about not being opposed to development, but not being supportive of development at any cost. And also with an eye to the environment, the waters, the lands and the air.”