The Ring

Celebrating National Aboriginal Day meaningfully

Tue, 2012-07-03 11:14

June 21 of every year is National Aboriginal Day, a day to celebrate the culture of Aboriginal peoples and their contributions to Canada. Across the nation there are many events that take place to mark the day. Governor General Romeo LeBlanc in 1996 declared June 21 as National Aboriginal Day to coincide with the summer solstice that is of significance to Aboriginal people.

As people stop to celebrate National Aboriginal Day, there is a stark reminder that despite the many rich cultures and continued contributions of Aboriginal peoples to Canada, they lag far behind the mainstream population in living and health conditions, employment and income, education and training, and many other areas.

One area where there is a large gap between First Nations and Canadian society is in economic development. Some of the reasons this gap exists is that First Nations have not had access to natural resources in their territories; archaic laws and policies have impeded progress; and they lack money for equity to invest in viable businesses. As the National Aboriginal Economic Development Chair, I will be working to help find mechanisms to overcome some of the barriers faced by Aboriginal people in economic development.

Despite the many barriers to economic development, First Nations are motivated to revitalize their economies so they provide revenue to their communities and long-term employment for their members. Lifting their communities out of poverty and unacceptable living conditions is the priority for every First Nation. There are many First Nations who have been successful in business, including the Osoyoos Indian Band, Westbank First Nation, Kamloops Indian Band, and Squamish First Nation.

Efforts to revitalize Indigenous economies can be divided into two categories: First Nations doing business and doing business with First Nations. The First Nations mentioned above are in the category of doing business themselves, and their businesses range from industrial developments to golf courses.

In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada in the Haida case ruled that the Crown must consult and accommodate First Nations when there is development in their territories that could impact on their rights. Through consultation, many business opportunities can arise that lead to certainty for those developments. Companies that have good business sense establish an early relationship with First Nations and understand what is important to them. Working with First Nations is very complex and, when done right, positive business relationships result and there are benefits for both parties. Examples of this are the Orca Quarry project with Namgis and Polaris Minerals, and several run-of-river projects with the Douglas First Nation and Innergex.

First Nations are not opposed to development but are opposed to development that destroys their rights, way of life and sites that are of cultural, spiritual or heritage importance. We see many of these projects in the news: the Enbridge Gateway Project, Taseko’s Prosperity Mines and the Kinder Morgan pipeline expansion in the Burrard inlet. The key to developing businesses in First Nations territories is to hear their concerns, and address those concerns through mitigation efforts to the satisfaction of the First Nation. If a business does not make these efforts, there will be opposition from First Nations that will include litigation and protests.

As you reflect on National Aboriginal Day every year, understanding the major issues that affect First Nations in business and impacts of the lands and resources in their territory is a good first step. Then, finding ways to support First Nations in resolving those issues will go a long way to being able to truly celebrate National Aboriginal Day in a meaningful way.

Kekinusuqs, Judith Sayers is National Aboriginal Economic Development Chair, Assistant Professor in Law and Business at the University of Victoria

Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of The Ring or the University of Victoria.