Indigenous Communities need to be Partners in Canada’s COVID-19 Recovery Plan

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, COVID-19, Joseph Quesnel

It’s easy to forget that at the beginning of the year, Canada was right in the middle of another crisis triggered by a series of protests over a natural gas pipeline being built through northern B.C. The issue of Indigenous reconciliation was front and centre in our national consciousness.

Then, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, damaging our national economy in a way that we had never experienced before. For a natural-resource powerhouse like Canada, this had a measurable impact on our economic performance in the early part of the year. In 2019, natural-resource industries contributed $236-billion, representing 11.3 per cent of the Canadian economy, according to Natural Resources Canada. About 1.7 million Canadians were employed by the sector.

Now, in this downturn, the manufacturing sector and natural resource extraction have become connected. A significant part of manufacturing is derived from natural resources.

For most Indigenous communities, reserve lands and traditional territories are located on or near resource projects. For example, the energy and mining sectors are some of the main private-sector employers of Indigenous peoples. Many of these resource-based jobs are high-paying jobs that make a big difference in Indigenous communities and provide meaningful steps toward tangible independence. In most cases, resource projects are a direct pathway to First Nation prosperity and wealth. And the vitality of the natural resource sector is intimately connected to the Indigenous communities that service it.

As Canada moves from pandemic crisis response toward recovery, the innovative natural-resource economy must play a central role. And as a result, Canada will need First Nations as full participants and partners in the natural resource-based recovery.

Recently, the national Task Force for Real Jobs, Real Recovery launched to draw up a blueprint for Canada’s economic recovery as the country emerges from the COVID-19 crisis. The task force is being convened by Resource Works, a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization committed to the development of Canada’s resources in a manner that is inclusive of Indigenous peoples and maintains a clean and healthy environment. Indigenous economic development is central to the work of the task force.

For most Indigenous communities, the sense of frustration comes from economic exclusion. The biggest challenge for Canada is to ensure that First Nations are full partners in the economic recovery, and that we do not simply return to the previous mode of conflict over resource development. As Indigenous business leader Blaine Favel once said: “Reconciliation means that Indigenous people should not be the poorest people in lands that belong to us.”

The answer to exclusion and resentment is becoming included and empowered. At present, the problem is Indigenous communities and governments lack financial tools that other Canadians take for granted. As Ottawa considers the mechanics of its economic recovery, it must remove barriers to the economic participation of Indigenous communities in the resource economy by providing support for Indigenous communities to become active beneficiaries and partners in the development of large-scale infrastructure.

At present, Indigenous communities under the Indian Act cannot use their greatest asset – reserve lands – to secure capital or build equity; you cannot place a lien on something that, under law, you do not own. Barring significant movement on the land question, Ottawa and Indigenous communities must work around this obstacle by providing financial tools to enable First Nations communities to lift themselves out of poverty.

To start, Ottawa can lend Indigenous governments its sovereign government guarantee to secure lending, just as the federal government currently backs Indigenous housing through ministerial guarantees that protect on-reserve mortgages. With such secure loans, Indigenous communities can better invest in major infrastructure projects, including pipelines, and these communities can become equity partners, as well as significant decision makers on environmental protection. And while Canada’s credit rating recently suffered a downgrade, it remains infinitely better than that of any current Indigenous government.

New Zealand’s Indigenous Maori communities – despite a history of colonial land dispossession – chose to invest money from treaty settlements and placed tribal lands back under Maori ownership and raised billions of dollars in assets. Likewise, Canada must open trusts that are held on behalf of First Nations and use those trusts – as well as land claims and specific claims settlement monies – toward investing and becoming equity partners in major infrastructure projects.

In the end, if Indigenous communities are equity partners in these projects, they will be invested in project successes, ensuring a pathway toward shared prosperity. Rather than being passive observers, First Nations should be engaged as full partners in the post-pandemic recovery. That would be good news for all involved.

 

Re-published from The Globe and Mail.

Joseph Quesnel is a research associate for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org  and also an adviser on the National Task Force for Real Jobs, Real Recovery. He is an Indigenous policy and governance researcher.