About 40 years ago, a provincial premier said he’d bulldoze Indian rights, land claims or any Indian community that got in the way of his mega-project.

Big business and governments didn’t bother with Indigenous rights back then.

Things have changed.

Today, powerful law firms churn out legal opinions advising governments and international corporations about every change in Native policy or law.

Billions of dollars are at stake, so governments and business want to smooth out wrinkles with Aboriginal peoples before they turn into major hurdles.

That’s exactly why the Aboriginal Human Resources Council (AHRC) hosted a conference in Ottawa Oct. 15 and 16.

AHRC enticed Aboriginal entrepreneurs with “500 projects in the energy, mining and forestry pipeline with a combined worth of $500 billion”, including Quebec’s Plan Nord, the Ring of Fire in Ontario, potash in Saskatchewan, biofuels in Alberta, and mining in BC and north of 60.

The key message at the Aboriginal Entrepreneur Conference and Trade Show (AECTS) in Ottawa was that development is good.

Somewhere, protesters might be trying to stop an oil pipeline or asking questions about the environmental impacts of Quebec’s Plan Nord – but not at this conference.

Speaker after speaker talked about common goals, beneficial relationships, jobs, training, shared wealth, increased opportunities, improved lives and better communities.

It’s about time, said Kelly Lendsay, President and CEO of AHRC. It’s something he’s been working toward ever since the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 15 years ago.

“The recommendation was that we need to do more to develop and accelerate labour-market strategies, engage employers. And we need an organization that can facilitate partnerships bringing the private sector together with Aboriginal communities, educators, unions and so on,” Lendsay said.

The conference sponsors read like a Who’s Who of industry and government, including Aboriginal Affairs, Natural Resources, Human Resources and Skills Development, and Ontario Aboriginal Affairs.

On the corporate side were Scotiabank, CN, Encana, SNC Lavalin, Syncrude and others.

There were nearly 400 registrants. About half were Aboriginal people from communities like Oujé-Bougoumou, Whitesand, Wasauksin and Chisasibi.

They took in panel discussions and presentations on land management, financing, training and hiring.

Some networked to share ideas, pitch projects or partnerships. Others spread business cards like confetti, betting on luck to make connections. Others were there to learn.

Bertie Wapachee, Assistant General Manager at the Chisasibi Business Service Centre, was looking for partners sensitive to Cree cultural values, to learn more about renewable energy projects and long-term job creation.

“Take our territory, for instance. There are so many resources there. We could develop projects but we want to get back to sustainable ways. We’re not doing it now, but it’s something we’ve been promoting for centuries,” Wapachee said.

“Once the resources have been extracted,” he added, “what will we have left?”

Randy Bosum said economic sustainability drew him to the conference. He’s a deputy chief but also Vice President of Oujé-Bougoumou Inc.

“It’s my first time here but I attend a lot of other events like this,” he said. “I always look at the program, the themes and the presentations.”

It might seem that the sole purpose of the conference is to convince Aboriginal groups and entrepreneurs to jump on the development bandwagon. But a few presenters had words of caution too.

Chris Sankey has been trying to get more jobs for people in Tshimshian territory in coastal industries near Prince Rupert, BC. Like some others, he reminded folks that development must be more than profit and numbers. It’s about people too.

Sankey said corporation executives and senior government managers should commit to increased hiring and training for Aboriginal peoples, but the message might not “be flowing through to the ground level”.