TRC@1: A new relationship with Aboriginal peoples demands economic reconciliation

Resources and Environment | Truth and Reconciliation Commission

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.  Greed is right.  Greed works.  Greed clarifies and cuts through to the essence of the evolutionary spirit.” – Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), Wall Street

In this country of ours, where riches are largely tied to an abundance of natural resources, land is at the heart of much economic activity.  And as the overwhelming majority of Canadians live within 100kms of the U.S. border, the treaty concept of sharing land over most of the geography of Canada is chiefly carried out through interaction of the natural resource industry with indigenous groups. Court judgments arising from disagreements over this sharing have overwhelmingly contributed to the body of law clarifying aboriginal and treaty rights.

The Calls to Action published by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) last June urge concrete steps to address the residential schools legacy in this country.  These 94 recommendations cross the full breadth of Canadian society, including the corporate sector, which is urged to adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into its corporate policies and core operational activities involving Indigenous peoples, their lands and resources.  On this point the final report notes: “Economic reconciliation will require finding common ground that balances the respective rights, legal interests, and needs of Aboriginal peoples, governments, and industry in the face of climate change and competitive global markets.”

This may sound more reasonable than a lot of people would expect, and that’s because the concept of economic reconciliation is a tough one.  Fairly reasoned, we could all do with a little more money in our bank accounts.  But it’s not about that. It’s about the tendency of economics, Gordon Gekko style, to eclipse science, health, culture, education, religion, sports, leisure and the arts as a singular cultural fixation.  In this fixation is housed the root of some of the most stubborn misconceptions about Canada’s Aboriginal communities, legitimizing arguments to leave reserves for jobs down south, legitimizing arguments to ‘get over it’ once compensation has been paid, legitimizing resource development without consent.  Even legitimizing residential schools. The TRC reports clarify that the policies motivating residential schools were intended to eliminate the notion of Aboriginal peoples as distinct to allow the Canadian government “to divest itself of its legal and financial obligations to Aboriginal people and gain control over their land and resources.”  Put another way, one thing residential schools were intended to do was to remove Aboriginal peoples and the treaty relationships as impediments to arrogating all the resources of the land for the exclusive benefit of the settler community.

It’s not that economics isn’t important. It’s that the limitation of this fixation as an approach to Indigenous engagement has been made clear time and time again.  If Canada ignores the importance of mutually beneficial economic relations with Aboriginal peoples, it is doomed to repeat the injustices of the residential school era. As we are all independently discovering with global warming, there is a price to be paid from a narrow view of economic development.  Conversely, we are also seeing there are incredible gains to be made from an expansive view.  Getting economic reconciliation right means being able to tell one from the other.  From the transformative Voisey’s Bay Impact Benefit Agreement with the Innu Nation in northern Labrador, to the commitment to consent by Ontario Power Generation with the Saugeen Ojibway Nation on the deep geological nuclear repository project under Lake Huron, to the 50% ownership in the McLean’s Mountain Wind Project by the United Chiefs and Councils of Mnidoo Mnising, to the establishment of independent revenue streams from the Casino Rama gaming project for each First Nation in Ontario, corporate actors are beginning to take consent seriously, which can be expected to generate benefits for the communities involved.

We have written about the concrete steps needed to move beyond empty affirmations to fully embrace UNDRIP. We have written about the examples that work, and how the world is moving forward with or without us. At its base, economic reconciliation will require an awareness that the engagement being undertaken is with living and breathing communities, with the entire breadth of their experiences and aspirations.  These communities have histories, politics, challenges, and ways of life that inform, and with the correct perspective, can add enormous value to the interaction.

Building trust is at the heart of this, and means understanding these characteristics. As corporate transactions with Aboriginal peoples proliferate, as UNDRIP mandates more meaningful engagement, companies that adequately account for this in their engagement strategy will be the winners.  As a starting point, the reports published by the TRC over the last year should be required reading for any proponent with a serious Aboriginal engagement strategy.  In addition to exposing the causes of residential schools, they gently appreciate how far non-aboriginals still need to go to comprehend the deep wounds left by the mindset that created residential schools, and then they are appropriately instructive. They are wisely written for all of us.  We all know reconciliation will not be brought about by media polemics or knee-jerk outrage.  It is not as easy as that.  Rather it will arrive gradually – eventual forgiveness on one side; eventual awareness and acknowledgement of suffering on the other, and joint and maintained action to prevent history from repeating itself. One day perhaps it will feature a mutually respectful economic relationship.

The TRC has taken up this mantle. Economic reconciliation is an appeal to find common ground amongst competing interests. It involves the full appreciation of a community being engaged.  In the words of the TRC, “We are not there yet.  The relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples is not a mutually respectful one.  But, we believe we can get there, and we believe we can maintain it.  Our ambition is to show how we can do that.

By Oliver MacLaren

OKT presents: a series of blog posts in honour of the 1st anniversary of the TRC calls to action