Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

First Nations, Canada urged to work on deal

'Positive outcome is in the cards'

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OTTAWA -- There has never been a better time to develop a new deal for First Nations, a national think-tank said Wednesday.

But the MacDonald-Laurier Institute warned if a deal isn't made, the consequences could be dire.

The institute launched a three-year project to help Canadian and indigenous leaders develop a plan to make the economy and the natural-resources sector work for everyone.

Two new research papers were made public as part of the launch. The papers examine how such a plan would be feasible and study the severe downside of not implementing a plan.

Brian Lee Crowley, the managing director of the institute, said Canada is at a "crossroads."

"A positive outcome is in the cards but if we get it wrong, it could get very bad," he said.

Crowley and Ken Coates co-authored one of the two papers looking at some of the successful resource- and revenue-sharing agreements already signed, including in B.C. and Quebec, as examples of how the rest of the country should operate.

Retired Queen's University professor Douglas Bland looked at why conditions are ripe for indigenous uprisings and blockades, which could seriously damage the country and economy.

"Without reasonable shifts in both communities in the near future, a great deal might change for the worse for both First Nations people and for Canadians," he wrote.

For decades, First Nations have seen natural resources and the wealth they generate flow from their lands to the benefit of non-aboriginals, often harming the land and interfering with their traditional activities such as hunting and trapping. Add to that the rampant poverty and poor health that create a stark line between indigenous people and other Canadians, the fact governments have been reluctant to intervene in aboriginal demonstrations, and Canada's vast geography, and there is a possibility things could go south very quickly, wrote Bland.

"Unfortunately for Canada, the matrix of the economy, national resources and transportation is irreversibly vulnerable," writes Bland. "It presents targets that cannot be fully protected."

There is also what he calls a "warrior cohort" as the aboriginal population is, on average, much younger than the Canadian population as a whole. More than 40 per cent of First Nations people in the Prairies will be under the age of 30 within four years, compared to just 20 per cent of the non-aboriginal community. They face marginalization and discrimination.

"The challenge for Canadian and aboriginal leaders is to rescue today's aboriginal youth from the negative social effects of Canadian realities and the shortcomings of indigenous governments," said Bland. "At the same time, they must prevent conditions from disenfranchising future generations of First Nations youth. There is no either/or choice in this situation."

The opportunities to disrupt the Canadian economy are there, he said.

Bland said Winnipeg is particularly vulnerable because it relies on Shoal Lake for its water supply and the water is piped across First Nations land. The city, which is a transportation hub for the country, could also be a target because there are no "easy or cost-effective ways" to ship things via a different route.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 3, 2013 A8

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