First Nations need to share in B.C.’s future resource boom

Oct 01, 2013

The following article was published by The Vancouver Sun on October 1, 2013


Mark Selman, Program Director, EMBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership at the Beedie School of Business, says that change is required to ensure that First Nations receive benefit from development in their traditional land.

By Mark Selman, Program Director, EMBA in Aboriginal Business and Leadership, Beedie School of Business.

The biggest challenge and opportunity facing British Columbia is reconciliation, or the development of respectful relationships and equality between Aboriginal Peoples and the rest of British Columbians. This is not only a social and an ethical challenge and opportunity, it is also an economic challenge and opportunity – the biggest one we face.

I say this in full recognition that many people, perhaps most British Columbians, think that the onus is on aboriginal people “to pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and take advantage of the many emerging opportunities for resource and economic development. Many see “native rights” as an obstacle to wealth creation in the province. They cringe at the caution and skepticism with which First Nations leaders often approach proposals for resource development as impeding growth. Conveniently, they ignore the historical fact that First Nations have often received no benefit from development within their traditional territories. Instead, they have seen disruption and degradation of the territories that once supported their ways of life and watched as most jobs and other opportunities have gone to people from other communities. I suggest that helping aboriginal people benefit equitably from emerging opportunities will revitalize the economy and avoid the economic risks and incredible waste that results from legal and political struggles over resource development.

Last May the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, a very mainstream policy group, released the first reports from a project called the Aboriginal Canada and Natural Resources Economy Project. Papers produced under this project advance the argument that Canada is in the midst of an unprecedented natural resource boom driven by rapid urbanization in the developing world. In one paper, called Canada and First Nations: Cooperation or Conflict? they recognize “that Canada’s natural wealth flows unfairly from Aboriginal lands and peoples to non-Aboriginal

Canadians” and that this “is a long-standing, justifiable grievance” giving rise to calls for action by Aboriginal Peoples. They argue that conditions are ripe for escalating protests leading even to armed insurrection.

Whether or not insurrection on a significant scale is a realistic fear, avoiding prolonged and counterproductive battles, be they legal, political or physical seems like an important objective if one is concerned about growing the economy. Resources that are or will soon be committed to legal and political advocacy for development projects could go a long way toward strengthening First Nations and preparing aboriginal individuals to succeed economically if a new, cooperative relationship were to be established. Companies in B.C. have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in failed attempts to force individual projects through over the objections of First Nations. A fraction of these amounts of money, if accompanied by a respectful approach and willingness to work with First Nations, might well have made those projects work to the benefit of companies, First Nations, and other local communities.

Last Wednesday, the BC Business Council produced a report called BC Agenda for Shared Prosperity. In it, they argue that new levels of collaboration and more equitable sharing of the benefits of resource development are necessary if B.C. is to prosper. While they do not single out First Nations, they certainly mention them as one of the groups of people who are failing to get their fair share of the benefit of economic activity. They point out that the history of B.C.’s development has too often been “divisive,” driven by an “us versus them” mentality. They state that this needs to be turned around, that we need a “shared agenda” and a more equitable distribution of benefits from business activity. The consequences of these reports for business and political leaders seem clear. We can do business as usual, maintain a “gold rush” approach to business development at all costs, and settle for wasteful and unproductive conflict. Or, we can build respectful relationships and cooperate to use this opportunity to restore wealth and well-being to First Nations so that everyone can prosper. And, since investment in education and the economic wellbeing of the poorest and fastest growing communities is likely to lead to the greatest net benefits to the economy, it is in everyone’s self interest to seek reconciliation.

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