When it comes to having the power to claim, develop and benefit from natural resources, First Nation people have never really been in control of the development that happens on traditional territories. However, the way resource development is handled by private industry and government is changing. Increasingly, First Nations are now being included in projects and developments that affect their communities or their traditional lands. It has become mandatory for developers to negotiate and deal with First Nations.
I am happy to say that there is a new example of First Nation inclusion happening in Northern Ontario. Brunswick House First Nation and Chapleau Ojibwe First Nation are partnering with a private energy developer to produce two new hydropower facilities on the Kapuskasing River. The two communities are part of the Wabun Tribal Council.
All this came about through the work of many First Nation leaders who have advocated for years to allow their communities to have a say in what happens near their communities or on their territories. First Nation inclusion in project development has also come about through the willingness of government and private industry to negotiate with Native communities in good faith. This was not done in the past.
Recently, First Nation representation was prominently addressed in the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) Waterpower Site Release and Development Review Policy. Wabun Tribal Council was directly involved in the creation of this new policy, which was established in the fall of 2004.
Jason Batise, Economic Development and Technical Services Advisor for Wabun, sat as Aboriginal representative on the Waterpower Policy Advisory Group that created the new policy. Through the direction of his leadership and other First Nations, he advocated having Native rights prominently addressed in the new policy that would affect waterpower development in the province. As a result, the new policy included Aboriginal Economic Development as one of three key points for waterpower development to take place.
The other two points are to provide new power sources for Ontario and provide sustainable economic development in general. This means that from now on, any private developer that plans on creating a new waterpower site must contact First Nations if any Aboriginal community or territory will be affected by the project.
The creation of this new policy has allowed Brunswick House and Chapleau Ojibwe to be able to partner with
Hydromega, an independent producer based in Quebec. This is a great opportunity for these two Wabun communities.
Wabun is looking at this as a long-term business commitment with the goal of owning these power facilities in the long run. This is good news as it can only lead to more self-sufficiency for these First Nations and allows them to assist future generations with profits generated from electricity production.
For the past century, First Nations did not experience any benefits from all the resource development and extraction on or near Aboriginal lands. Communities in Southern Ontario were really left out in terms of development but these days good things are starting to happen.
In the far north, where there has been limited development until now, First Nations have a big say. Communities like my hometown of Attawapiskat are reaping benefits coming from the Debeers mining project on the Attawapiskat River.
You must remember that, 30 or 40 years ago, this would not have been the case for Attawapiskat simply because there was no political or public will to treat First Nation people fairly. Somehow everyone thought we would just fade away or continue to stay to ourselves trapped in isolation and living in third world conditions. Guess what? We got an education.
I am excited about the development of the Kapuskasing hydro projects and the partnership between Wabun and Hydromega. It is hoped that the two waterpower facilities will be online and operating by 2009. The great thing about them is that there will be minimal environmental impact as they are river projects that do not require huge reservoirs.
The big need right now is for the provincial and federal government to come through with financial assistance so that Wabun and their First Nations can negotiate these developments on a level playing field. Shawn Batise, Executive Director at Wabun, and Jason Batise are both in discussions with government organizations such as Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), the Heritage Fund and FedNor. It is really important that funding come through to help in this critical stage of development.
Although it is late in coming, I think it is satisfying to be living in a time when my people are finally being fairly treated and on a more equal footing. We First Nation people now have more of an opportunity to reap benefits from all that is happening. Just think: some day my people might even have clean running water, proper housing and meaningful employment right across this country. Better late than never.