Aboriginal Leader Says Consult or Risk Canada Resource Gains

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Assembly of First Nations Leader Perry Bellegarde
Assembly of First Nations leader Perry Bellegarde won the job in a December election following the surprise resignation of Shawn Atleo, whose support frayed as he sought cooperation on education funding with Harper. Photographer: Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press via AP Photo

Canada’s top aboriginal leader warned that the country’s push for resource projects will be bogged down in legal and political strife unless governments consult more on revenue sharing and environmental protection.

“People won’t invest in Canada if there is instability, if there is no partnership with indigenous peoples,” Perry Bellegarde, leader of the Assembly of First Nations, said Wednesday in an interview at Bloomberg’s Ottawa office. He said disputes over resource rights with aboriginals will affect most of the estimated C$675 billion ($536 billion) of projects over the next decade.

Aboriginal power is growing, as was shown in recent court victories involving land-claim issues and the Idle No More street protests that began about two years ago, said Bellegarde, who in December was elected to head the group representing about 900,000 people in 634 communities. Leaders of Canada’s First Nations will choose from a range of political and legal “alternatives” if the government continues to fail to “consult and accommodate” aboriginals, he said.

“So how do you stop that? Check your political strategy, check your legal strategy, and people will probably get on the land to protect the land,” he said. The pressure will also include more political lobbying in the run-up to the federal election expected in October, Bellegarde said.

‘People Get Frustrated’

Bellegarde, 52, a Saskatchewan chief, won his AFN post following the surprise resignation of Shawn Atleo, whose support frayed as he sought cooperation on education funding with Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Some aboriginals want more resistance, including through street protests.

Harper’s focus on making Canada an energy superpower, and attempts to speed up project approvals, are leaving aboriginals behind, Bellegarde said. Projects -- such as Enbridge Inc.’s proposed Northern Gateway oil pipeline from Alberta’s oil sands to the Pacific coast -- run through land subject to agreements that have been disputed for centuries.

“These people are on unemployment and they are poor,” he said. “They watch all these trees being trucked out of their home territories and nothing coming back. People get frustrated seeing that every day, so people want to be involved.”

Recent court rulings have made clear that governments must make a genuine effort to “consult and accommodate” aboriginals where there is a credible land claim, said Karen Busby, a law professor at the University of Manitoba.

‘Serious Consideration’

“We are going to start feeling the pain of the failure to do that in the next little while,” Busby said by telephone from Winnipeg. She also said the consultations are not “a veto” but “a serious consideration” for companies and governments.

Major resource projects have been built for most of Canada’s history without substantial aboriginal input, as governments moved many families onto reservations and took a narrow interpretation of their land claims.

That has been changing in recent years, most notably with Enbridge’s Northern Gateway project, which has been held up partly because of aboriginal opposition. A company official in September conceded that delays in gaining aboriginal support has meant plans to complete the project by 2018 were “quickly evaporating.”

National Summit

“There are some meaningful legal rights held by aboriginal communities, some of which are even more powerful in practical terms because of the potential to delay projects and tie them up in court challenges,” Dwight Newman, Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Rights in Constitutional and International Law at the University of Saskatchewan, said by e-mail. “Lots of companies prefer to negotiate to avoid the risks.”

The expectation for rising investment in resource projects in the coming decade comes as a government-commissioned report last week said there has been “a conspicuous lack of urgency” in some treaty talks.

The AFN plans to host a summit on resource development next year that includes aboriginal, business and government leaders, Bellegarde said.

He declined to say if he supported Northern Gateway or TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Energy East pipeline from Alberta to New Brunswick, saying they are matters for local communities to decide. It’s unclear what should happen if only a small minority of tribes along the path of a major project oppose it, he said.

High Unemployment

Education remains a problem, with per-capita funding for aboriginals on reserves at C$6,500 compared with C$10,500 for Canadians in schools funded by provincial governments, Bellegarde said. That has contributed to unemployment rates that can reach as high as 70 percent on some reserves, he said. Canada’s national rate was 6.8 percent in March.

“Things aren’t alive and well in Canada when it comes to First Nations,” he said. “People in the world need to know that and see that.”

The pressure on government may increase this year as the AFN works on increasing voter turnout in 65 federal districts with a high ratio of aboriginals and persuading other Canadians of the need for change, Bellegarde said.

Such moves are less about challenging any political party than building on momentum from Idle No More protests, which showed that people are more willing to stand up to governments today, Bellegarde said.

“We have to harness that energy again, but to bring about constructive change in terms of policy and legislation,” he said.

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