At the How to Get Out of Colonialism conference, held in Montreal on April 19, McGill Professor Roderick Macdonald opened his presentation with a troubling anecdote.

The conference was organized by the Indigenous People and Governance (IPG) working group, an academic group that has worked on numerous different projects and conferences in the past. Speaking on a panel workshop on Resources and Economic Autonomy, MacDonald began his talk with a story about a previous conference that IPG had organized in the Chippewas of Rama Mnjikaning First Nation in Ontario.

MacDonald recalled that they asked the band office if there was an Elder who would be willing to open the conference with a blessing. A band office administrator replied, “We don’t do that anymore.”

Puzzled, MacDonald and his colleagues asked who they should talk to find someone to open the conference.

“You should get the director of the casino,” MacDonald recalled the administrator saying, “The only thing that really matters in this First Nation anymore is the casino. Everything is driven by it.”

MacDonald said he was stunned to hear this.

“Here’s something that purports to be an exercise in economic self-determination,” he says, “in this case a casino that’s brought in for the First Nation to manage and generate revenue for the good of the whole Nation, and to produce other economic development and support infrastructure—that had radically changed the structures of governance in the Nation. The effects of a huge economic engine were not predictable, and now political decision-making was driven by this economic development, and not by traditional patterns of authority.”

Throughout his talk, entitled “Rethinking Property as Sovereignty,” MacDonald cautioned that First Nations might see their traditional customs and values eroded in unexpected ways as a result of projects that at first seem to be in the economic best interests of the Nation and people. He broke down the four models of economic relationship between Aboriginal groups and the federal government by using terms familiar from Quebec’s constitutional debates.

The Indian Act, he said, was “separatist but paternalist.” It made First Nations separate from Canada and was imposed by the Indian Affairs branch without any interest in the specific concerns of individual First Nations. The First Nations Land Management Act was “co-optational,” meaning that while it was an idea that First Nations could opt into,  “the assumption behind the act is to create the possibility of First Nations using reserve land as capital assets.” The model undertaken by the Gitxsan First Nation is “assimilationist,” meaning that it moves toward no residual crown title or controls and leaves the First Nation with no power to exercise sovereignty other than bylaws. Finally, there is the model of the agreements reached by both the Nisga’a and Comox First Nations, which MacDonald terms “sovereignty-association.” This type of agreement, he stressed, is the only one that does not involve top-down or outside-in imposition of changes to a First Nation’s property.

“The Nisga’a and Comox model of agreement is different in two dimensions,” said MacDonald. “It approximates the possibility of nation-to-nation negotiation, building a regime of property entitlement, recognizing that the business of treaty-making around traditional land claims must be worked out on a nation-to-nation basis. None of the other three do this.”

Secondly, MacDonald continued, the Nisga’a and Comox agreement model understands that property (not just land, but also vehicles and other moveable assets) is only part of a broad range of issues related to territorial governance.

“Configuring property rights is an exercise of sovereignty for First Nations,” MacDonald said. “We can’t just deal with property rights, assuming they can be reconfigured, without considering the impact they will have on the way the community is managed.”

Speaking afterward, MacDonald elaborated on the importance of nation-to-nation negotiation for all First Nations, but especially in the context of the James Bay Crees at a time when the Plan Nord will be in effect among their territories.

“Having a framework agreement allows First Nations to have better monitoring and follow-up,” he said “and it also allows them, because they’re working in a group, to acquire expertise in environmental protection or economic development, to make sure that what was promised is actually delivered.

The only caution that Professor MacDonald had for the Crees engaged in negotiating with the Quebec government over the Plan Nord was over monitoring and enforcement. He hoped that Chiefs will hold out for the Quebec government to commit to making a significant contribution toward providing monitoring and enforcement expertise.

“We can’t assume that because it’s written in the law, that the projects will monitor and enforce themselves,” he warned. “Monitoring and enforcement costs a lot of money and requires a lot of expertise. Some of that expertise is present, but maybe not all that you need. So part of the deal discussion, as the Plan Nord moves forward on an nation-to-nation basis, is that the Quebec government has to help on monitoring, and it has to help on enforcement.”

MacDonald, however, was optimistic that the Crees are in a strong position to get what they need out of Plan Nord negotiations.

“The leadership knowledge and capacity in Northern Quebec today,” he said, “is much more widespread [than in the mid-20th century, when earlier mines were being dug]. There are many, many more people at the same level of sophistication, and many better processes of dealing with outsiders coming in. They have a better sense of how to control these things. In the past, people were often at the service of the almighty buck. When you need investment, you’re not in the same position of being able to negotiate on even-steven terms. But by good leadership and good management, First Nations in Northern Quebec have much better leverage in negotiating.”