Recently I have been noticing so much news regarding First Nations and interaction with resource developers. This kind of thing has been going on for more than 100 years but things have changed in the past few decades. As Native people we never had much to do with all the development that has taken place on our traditional lands. Then, due to court decisions and the lobbying of Native political bodies and organizations across Canada, the playing field got a whole lot more level.
The result of this new way of thinking and a policy of inclusion for Native people when it comes to development on First Nation territories means that a lot of formerly disenfranchised original people of this land are now coming into their own. We are reaping the rewards of many mining, hydro, forestry and other projects that have provided for employment, training and financial opportunities that we never had before.
For the most part things seem to be going very good with negotiations between First Nations, resource developers and governments leading to positive ventures while environmental and conservation concerns are also being addressed. However, there are some problems with developers and governments that want to rush the move into pristine Native traditional lands without the proper consultation or respect.
When it comes to the development of some of the very last pristine wilderness areas in Canada we Native people are all that stand in the way of business as usual and the movement of industry into huge tracts of land where few men have walked. These are places of great beauty, clean water, fresh air and multitudes of wildlife. I know firsthand what these traditional lands mean to my people. I have walked in the footsteps of my ancestors on the ancient shores of the great James Bay and its islands.
One way or the other, all of this land will end up being developed and we all know that. The thing is that we need better plans and a lot more thinking about how we are going to proceed with all the projects happening. A good place to start is for everyone to show respect for each other and above all … for the land.
Development does not have to mean conflict. I can point to the De Beers Victor mine near my home community of Attawapiskat as an example of a mining project that has moved ahead without dire consequences. Yes, things could always be better with such huge projects on traditional wilderness lands and yes there have been problems here and there. But many of my people have found jobs, been trained and the community has benefited to some degree from this initiative. In many ways, we were never really ready for such a huge project in our backyard but somehow we have managed to move ahead.
I look at many of the resource development projects happening around the Timmins and Kirkland Lake areas and I see mining, forestry and hydro projects moving ahead with the involvement of First Nations. That is in large part due to the work of Wabun Tribal Council and their First Nations Chiefs and staff. In just over a decade I have seen Wabun First Nations go from “have not” communities to positive environments where there is a new hope, people are being employed, starting businesses, being trained, the quality of life is improving and there is hope for the future. Wabun has ended up being one of the go-to organizations in Canada when First Nation tribal councils, First Nations organizations, government and resource developers need to find a way to make a project happen. I know you can’t change every situation in every First Nation in a decade or two but there is some good work going on and for the first time in history Native people are looking to a better future.
One of the things we are going to need as First Nation people right across this land when it comes to dealing with resource developers and government is strong solidarity. We need to stand behind our national and provincial political organizations like the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Chiefs of Ontario (COO) and Nishnawbe-Aski Nation (NAN), as well as our regional representatives at Mushkegowuk Council, Wabun Tribal Council and Matawa Tribal Council just to name a few. Our power to negotiate good deals for our people and future generations will have a lot to do with strength in numbers and we will need to count on the expertise and leadership of our First Nation political bodies and organizations to make sure we are not intimidated or short changed in development on our ancient lands. History shows us that governments and industry have always used the trick of divide-and-conquer to manage us in the past so lets make sure to get behind our Native political and related First Nation organizations to make sure we are a strong, informed, aware and spiritual force to be reckoned with.