Canada’s First Nations: finding opportunities for dialogue and democracy in the resource boom

By Mark Selman

First published in SEEchange Magazine

If think tanks and major business organizations are to be believed, Canada is on the verge of a major resource boom driven by the rapid pace of urbanization in developing nations. The proposed Bitumen and Liquefied Natural Gas pipelines and port facilities in Northwest BC is but one manifestation of this boom. The Northern Gateway pipeline and no less than fourteen LNG port facilities and supporting pipelines have been proposed. As in most other major resource development projects, First Nations are likely to feel the greatest impact of these developments and may ultimately have a very significant role in shaping what can be done.

These kinds of development are at a huge scale and their potential impact on the economy and the environment is undeniable.  Unfortunately, in this author’s view, discussion of these issues has been focussed almost exclusively on their economic and environmental consequences. Little attention has been paid to the potential these developments have to affect learning, democracy and governance, or citizenship participation in decision-making.  Unfortunately senior levels of government have been among the culprits in framing these developments as primarily economic. Harper and his cabinet have intimated that they will evaluate the Northern Gateway in terms of its potential benefit to the national economy, and may override local and environmental concerns in the national interest.  The BC government has imposed strong conditions for its approval of the Northern Gateway project but has touted LNG projects as having the potential to save the provincial economy.  Neither has shown any inclination to use the opportunity to engage people and communities in meaningful dialogue about what kinds of development are desirable, what trade-offs are worth making, what mistakes must be avoided, and most importantly, what processes could be used to balance national, provincial and local interests.

We have enough experience with major industrial projects in remote communities to know what some of their effects are likely to be on rural communities:

  • Large influxes of short term workers, often staying in camps which do not generate revenue for local communities even though they may use local services and often contributing to social problems including prostitution and drug use.
  • High paying jobs for some local people, often attracting people who have been fulfilling key roles in communities, local businesses and community organizations.
  • Lots of money for training skilled trades and technicians but nothing to assist communities to fill gaps caused by the changes in the local economy.
  • Divisions in the communities as some local businesses benefit hugely while others are affected negatively and others oppose the development on environmental or other grounds.

All these problems can be mitigates, especially if communities are prepared and more senior levels of government support local government in making sure that companies are forced to be responsible for these effects.  But that requires seeing these projects as more than just cash cows for the national and provincial economies.

Interestingly, First Nations may hold the key to developing more rational approaches to thinking about resource development projects.  A series of court decisions under section 35 of the constitution mean that senior levels of government and corporations cannot ignore the rights of First Nations to consultation and accommodation for infringements on their use of their traditional territories.  Every major project will infringe on the territories of one or more First Nations.  Like other communities, First Nations want more than environmental assurances and economic benefits.  They want to use resource development as part of reconciliation, the restoration of respectful relationships between themselves and other levels of government and equity with regard to education, health and other social goods.

Since even business organizations such as the BC Business Council are urging that First Nations need a more equitable deal on upcoming resource developments, maybe there is an opportunity for First Nations to open the door for a broader dialogue about how we make decisions on matters of local AND national significance.  Maybe this is an opportunity for everyone to learn something about how we can resolve conflicts through dialogue rather than through the courts.