Canadian governments damaging opportunities for First Nations

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Appeared in the Globe and Mail, March 1, 2018
Canadian governments damaging opportunities for First Nations

Located in northern Alberta in the heart of the oilsands, the Fort McKay First Nation is an outstanding example of community capitalism in action. Its business portfolio generates gross revenue of about $500 million a year and creates about 2000 jobs. Only about five per cent of its annual net income is derived from government transfers; the other 95 per cent is own-source revenue from business activities.

And the wealth is shared. Fort McKay’s Community Well-Being Index, based on income, employment, housing quality and education, has steadily risen until it is almost as high as the average for all Canadian communities—an outstanding achievement for a First Nation whose people just a generation ago were hunters and trappers in a remote wilderness area.

All this has been done without producing a drop of oil or earning a dollar in royalties. Fort McKay has prospered by selling services to oilsands corporations, starting with janitorial care, then expanding into trucking, earth-moving, well-site maintenance, and workforce lodging. In short, they seized the opportunities presented by one of the biggest industrial developments on the planet.

The story did not have to have such a happy ending. Initially, the people of Fort McKay were skeptical about development. In 1983 they erected a blockade to stop the heavy trucks that were rumbling through their village. But around that time they also came to realize that their old way of life based on hunting and trapping was passing away. They were faced with a stark choice: take advantage of the new opportunities, or become dependent on the Canadian welfare state. They chose the path of self-supporting independence.

Fort McKay’s story is of national importance because participation in resource development is the most promising road out of poverty for hundreds of First Nations located in remote areas. First Nations near cities can thrive by building casinos, hotels, shopping centres, and residential developments. But for many remote First Nations, oil and gas, minerals, forestry and fisheries are the best hope for prosperity.

Unfortunately, Canadian governments at all levels are now frustrating such opportunities for First Nations. Ottawa has prohibited drilling for oil in the Arctic and shipping oil off the northern coast of British Columbia. The B.C. government, and local municipalities, are trying to stop construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline. B.C. has also managed to impede the export of liquefied natural gas, even as the Americans have enthusiastically entered the field. And the Ontario government has not managed to advance the “Ring of Fire” mining development.

Each of these obstructed developments would benefit dozens of First Nations; together they could make a vital difference for hundreds. The federal government is increasing department spending for Indigenous Affairs, but that’s small change compared to what the private sector would bring to Indigenous people if given the chance. As Jim Boucher, Chief of the Fort McKay First Nation has said, “The government has only a couple of hundred billion dollars in their spending budget and that’s small compared to the Canadian economy, which generates trillions of dollars.”

Opportunity is fleeting. If you don’t grasp it, it slips away. Other countries will supply the world’s need for natural resources if Canada does not. And once again First Nations will be the losers. Let’s give the last word to Niccolò Machiavelli, who was a gifted poet as well as a great political analyst: “Few know me, Opportunity am I/The reason that I never can be still/Is because on a wheel my foot does lie.” The image of Opportunity balancing on Fortune’s wheel is as valid now as it was in Machiavelli’s time.

Embrace Opportunity or she is quickly gone.