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Resolution of Native Land Claim Settlements Critical to Future of Canadian Economy

In economic terms at least, Canadians have often been described somewhat simplistically as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – that is to say our economy is essentially resource-based.

While the contribution of natural resources (primarily energy, metals and minerals) to Canada’s Gross National Product remains at record highs, never before has this sector’s contribution to our economic success been so important – and more threatened.

The elephant in the room is the ongoing legal challenges pursued by  Aboriginal peoples who are seeking to resolve past injustices and assert their constitutionally guaranteed legal rights over resource development on their traditional lands.

Canadians are generally naive about the impact of commodity prices and resource development on the nation’s economy. The same applies to the consequences of not resolving longstanding native land claim issues which, incidentally, are supported by British colonial policy. In fact, that colonial policy recognized Aboriginal tribes as sovereign nations whose title to the land was recognized by English law and international law.

According to Bill Gallagher LLB,  an authority on the rise of native empowerment in the Canadian resources sector, First Nations have achieved an enviable record of success pursuing land claims issues in the courts. More than 203 rulings countrywide have gone in their favour so far. In British Columbia, where unsettled claims have fueled resistance to projects such as Enbridge Inc.’s Northern Gateway pipeline, (which has over 200 preconditions for development) and Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline, their record is 11 out of 13.  Some have accused native activists of holding large corporations hostage to leverage their land claims with governments, something Gallagher doubts and argues is simply a “bad strategy.”

Alliances between Aboriginal Peoples and well funded, media savvy eco-activists, present a formidable challenge to resource companies and their big city litigators whose success rate in the courts has simply been abysmal.

In a landmark ruling last June, the Supreme Court gave First Nations effective control over vast tracts of territory outside their reserves. Economic development, including pipelines and new mines proposed by non-aboriginals -usually corporations- now require consent from First Nations in regions where the expanded concept of land title has been established by the Supreme Court.

Gallagher concedes the stakes are high for Canadians of all stripes given the fact our economy is heavily dependent on export markets. “Canadians need to understand that until we meet half-way on the road to resources, First Nations, Inuit and Métis will continue to exert pressure to drive their legitimate native empowerment agenda. ‘Legitimate’ in the sense that projects will always succeed when Aboriginal Peoples become commercial players in a meaningful partnership involving shared-power and mitigation,” he says.

The vast majority of Canada’s resource output is destined for export markets, mostly to the United States, China, Japan and the European Union. Because commodities are denominated in U.S. dollars, their relative strength or weakness can have a profound impact on resource dependent economies including Canada’s.

Cross the border into the U.S. from Canada and you’ll pay a lot more in Canadian dollars for just about anything compared to a year ago. The same applies to U.S. imports. That’s because oil prices are down by 50%, with mineral commodities trading much lower as well.

Be careful what you wish for, however! What you save at the pump translates into lower government revenues that support things we all take for granted like health care, public education and social services to name a few. Ultimately the taxpayer – whether a corporation or an individual – gets to pay for these! That’s one reason why an accommodation with Canada’s aboriginal peoples is critical to the economic future of the country.

Nonetheless, some hard fought battles have produced a few notable successes that resource company executives could easily use as a  blueprint for future settlements. At the Voisey’s Bay nickel project in Labrador, which is located within areas that are subject to land claims by Innu and Inuit, mine owner Vale has successfully negotiated Impacts and Benefits Agreements (IBA’s) with the Nunatsiavut Government and Innu Nation.

Darryl Shiwak, Minister of Lands and Natural Resources for the Nunatsiavut Government confirms his government’s willingness to enter into mutually beneficial resource agreements: “We’re 44% of the permanent work force, so this project has been extremely beneficial for us. Our Impact and Benefit Agreement is a permanent mechanism based on mutual respect and cooperation; it’s meant to be a living-breathing document. We too have obligations under the IBA and realize it provides security for both sides. We’re working to reduce barriers and to promote industry.”

In 1996, BHP Billiton, owner of the Ekati diamond mine in the Northwest Territories, signed four Impact and Benefits Agreements with regional Aboriginal communities. The confidential agreements cover annual cash payments from the mine to communities, annual scholarship funds, preferential hiring and business opportunities for Aboriginal peoples, and environmental protection measures.

Ekati employs about 800 people on site with approximately 600 additional contractors providing support services. Of this number, 33% are Aboriginal, exceeding the company’s target of 31% Aboriginal employment.

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