Getting to yes with First Nations

There's a prevailing perception among business leaders and investors and even within some First Nations communities that you can't get a resource development project built in B.C.

Of course, that's not necessarily the case. There are numerous examples of successful resource projects proceeding in B.C. with active participation from Indigenous communities. The Huu-ay-aht First Nations, for instance, recently signed an agreement with Western Forest Products to acquire a seven per cent stake in its Port Alberni forest operation. Last year, the Squamish Nation approved an economics benefits agreement with Woodfibre LNG providing the green light for the construction of a $1.6 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) processing and export facility.

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However, these projects have been largely overshadowed by stark images of hereditary chiefs from the Wet'suwet'en First Nation blockading the Coastal GasLink LNG pipeline near Houston last January.

These protests highlighted the rift between hereditary chiefs of the five Wet'suwet'en clans and the elected band council, which supports the pipeline. This situation is particularly troubling given that Coastal GasLink signed community and project agreements with all the elected Indigenous bands along the pipeline route in B.C.

Leading up to the upcoming Indigenous Resource Opportunities Conference in Nanaimo this month, many business leaders are telling me they're concerned that the impending passage of federal Bill C-262 implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) will embolden activists further to challenge resource projects. They fear UNDRIP will herald a fundamental shift in the legal landscape governing Indigenous rights and title, potentially stopping resource projects in their tracks.

If the Senate passes Bill C-262, Canada would be the first country in the world to harmonize its federal laws with UNDRIP.

In the provincial throne speech, Premier John Horgan committed to make B.C. the first province in Canada to introduce legislation to implement UNDRIP, which is a commendable goal.

Among the 46 guiding principles in UNDRIP, Article 32 states that governments shall consult and co-operate with Indigenous Peoples and obtain "their free and informed consent" prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands and territories. Some critics have characterized this as a First Nations veto over resource projects. What it really does is reaffirm government and industry's duty to consult with First Nations, which has been upheld by numerous court rulings and has become standard business practice for companies building positive working relationships with First Nations.

Granted, UNDRIP is not a magic bullet that's going to end decades of conflict, nor is it a fatal blow to resource development. It's an opportunity for First Nations, government and industry to develop a framework for meaningful consultation that meets the legitimate needs of everyone involved, provided all parties do their part to make it work.

It's incumbent upon the federal and provincial governments to develop progressive policies around UNDRIP that facilitate healthy dialogue and joint decision-making for resource development projects.

For their part, First Nations need to understand that accountability for giving free and informed consent is a two-way street. Indigenous communities need to look at all sides of the equation to inform themselves about available economic opportunities, associated risks and how proposed projects fit within the long-term economic, environmental and cultural goals of the community, rather than just focusing on environmental aspects they don't like. In many communities, it's a choice between participating in sustainable resource development or continuing to rely on the Crown for their economic and social support needs.

Finally, industry needs to understand that the rules of the game are changing. Companies have to put more effort into relationship building, engaging First Nations earlier in the process rather than after they've developed their business plans. First Nations are looking to build capacity, so industry should think beyond straightforward resource extraction and focus more on value-added production that supports long-term economic development within traditional territories.

It may be that UNDRIP results in less development in some areas of the province. However, if First Nations, government and industry move forward on the premise that trust and respect get results, then this new legislation could be instrumental in laying the foundation for creating a more prosperous, sustainable and equitable economy for all British Columbians.

-- Dallas Smith is president of the Nanwakolas Council in Campbell River and chairman of the Indigenous Resource Opportunities Conference.

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