OTTAWA—They can—and they will.
If the chiefs and protesters making noise across Canada have a common message for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it’s that they intend to stand in the way of his resource development ambitions if he doesn’t play fair.
“We’ve got the geography covered,” Manitoba Grand Chief Derek Nepinak told a news conference.
With First Nations and their supporters mobilizing across the country, they have the power to “bring the Canadian economy to its knees.”
The problem with that messaging? It’s not just Harper who decides how to divide the spoils.
Resource revenue sharing is often presented as a magic bullet for many First Nations, a way to claw back ancient rights over the riches of the land, bring jobs to their communities and find new sources of funding to make up for the perpetual shortage of government money and support.
But it’s a game that by definition involves more than just two players.
The provinces, since they have jurisdiction over natural resources and royalties, and the corporations involved in extracting the very wealth in question must also be at the table.
“These matters need to be negotiated case by case,” acknowledged Edward John, grand chief of the First Nations Summit, the group that leads treaty negotiations for British Columbia.
And it’s already happening, here and there.
Quebec has lucrative arrangements with the Cree.
The Labrador Innu have revenue-sharing agreements in place for nickel extraction in Voisey’s Bay.
In northern Ontario, just south of Attawapiskat, where base metals are being uncovered in the so-called Ring of Fire, the provincial and federal governments are both keen to sit down with companies and the area’s First Nations to work out a fair deal.
And mining and energy companies across Canada are reaching out frequently to enter negotiations with First Nations in areas where they hope to do business.
It’s not happening in any kind of systematic way, however.
That’s where First Nations leaders get really upset.
“We demand a fair share of those resources,” said Bill Travers, the Assembly of First Nations’ regional chief for Manitoba.
The treaties signed with the Crown hundreds of years ago only covered the top six inches of the land, and didn’t deal with what was underneath, he said.
“Anything below that has to be negotiated.”
John sees federal cabinet ministers travelling the world boasting about Canada’s natural resource potential and the need to invest more than $650-billion over the next decade.
And he sees First Nations across the country living on or right next to those very natural resources, often with very little say in what happens to them.
But while the participation of provinces and corporations is essential if the issue of resource revenue sharing is to be resolved, a repairing of the First Nation-federal government relationship is a prerequisite to any kind of progress.
If, as in the case of B.C., there are outstanding land claims that the federal government seems increasingly ready to walk away from, why would a corporation even consider investing in a climate of such uncertainty?
Similarly, in parts of the country where there are long-standing treaties with unclear implications and First Nations increasingly ready to use the courts for clarity, often to their advantage, it would have to be a mighty rich natural resource to keep a company interested in the long term.
That uncertainty is what led the Canadian Council of Chief Executives—the country’s big business leaders—to call on Ottawa last summer to devise a national energy strategy that includes First Nations input, provides for training and capacity building, and works towards making aboriginals full partners in natural resource development.
The alternative, said John, is that companies are stymied every step of the way.
“They’re going to run squarely into the (environmental) protection-based approach of the First Nations …The reality is our people are heavily dependent on resources of the land, whether it be hunting or fishing,” he said.
B.C. alone has dozens of mining and pipeline projects under discussion, he noted.
“The government is in no way right now consulting with aboriginals on these particular proposals. If they don’t they’re going to run into (problems with local bands). They’re going to fight it, they’ll go to the courts.”