Resource benefit sharing to address poverty in First Nations – just not enough.
We need effective mechanisms for sharing the benefits of natural resources to redress the extreme poverty of Canada’s aboriginals.
This is a graffiti I photographed off a doorframe in the Pikangikum First Nation in Northwestern Ontario in 2001. Peering through the window of my hotel room, I saw dopy-eyed ten-year-old kids sniffing gasoline out of grocery bags. It was one of the saddest thing I’ve seen in my life. That year the Pikangikum reserve, a community of 2000, had the highest suicide rate per capita in the western world. MacLean’s magazine reported on the same issue 12 years later. Sadly nothing has changed.
On January 21, 2000 I received the most important social lesson of my life. I’d just completed lecturing about the economic benefit of non-timber forest values to a group of foresters and First Nations to promote resource sharing in Garden River First Nation. After my lecture, an aboriginal Elder came to me. Waiving an arthritic finger in my direction, she said: “Never forget that the poorest people in that country of yours are single women in Indian reserves. They have nothing, no support, no voice. These are the people you need to help.”
Years later, the principal of an on-reserve school in Northern Ontario where I was doing some work told me, teary-eyed, that half his students have extreme behavioral disorders that need medication. If 50% of the children of any settler community showed this trend, the Prime Minister would declare a national emergency. There would be countless public enquiries. We would never hear the end of it.
Nothing is new: Aboriginals in Canada have been treated poorly throughout history.
I am of the opinion that a resource grab was a primary motivation of the cultural genocide inflicted by the Indian Residential School System: while children were assimilated, the governments were quietly plotting to take over the natural resources of traditional hunting grounds for natural resource exploitation. There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind that conspiracy was at play. It was vile and has caused irreparable damages to the aboriginal cultures of Canada.
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New solutions show willingness to help but a poor understanding of poverty issues. For example, to secure a license to operate a sawmill in Ontario, the applicant must include the participation of First Nations. This helps somewhat by providing local jobs but it offers no help to single women and school children.
Fundamentally this is not sustainable: While it is axiomatic that corporations exploiting natural resources are sustainable, the communities that support them are not. This applies to aboriginal communities as well as settler communities but it is especially hurtful to aboriginal communities because of the reserve system as per the Indian Act of Canada, which forces aboriginal in reserve land.
Benefit sharing can mean much more than employing laborers to cut trees. The best example I have seen is the 18.9 mW White River power dam, a joint venture between the Pic Mobert First Nation and Regional Power which show a sustainable approach to alleviating First Nation poverty. Clever people, government funding and willingness to think about sustainable communities created this. I was peripherally involved in the deal, a fact that swells my chest with pride.
We have to reverse past trends that started with the arrival of settlers in Canada. For example, I’ve done resources-related field work (forestry and minerals) in all of Canada’s provinces. The one thing I have observed is that First Nations reserves are generally on the poorest track of lands in any one region. I have travelled to enough First Nation reserves to see a pattern: reserve lands are the crappy ones with poor potential for agriculture. There is a historical reason: settlers in search of good farmlands pushed the First Nation people back into the mosquito swamps.
There is a lot of reconciliation to be done between Canada and its aboriginal people. Though the current rhetoric is reconciliatory, the mechanisms for reconciliation and reparation are poorly defined and are at risk to lapse into yet more decades of platitudes.
Benefit sharing is not about year-round moose hunting and pickerel fishing. It’s about creating mechanisms that permit to support the poorest of the poor among us.
Dr. Luc C. Duchesne is a Speaker and Author with a PhD in Biochemistry. With three decades of scientific and business experience, he has published ... <Read more about Dr. Luc Duchesne>