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Industry, First Nations partnerships exploding

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WESTBANK FIRST NATION, BC — Most, if not all, large-scale resource development projects are situated on or pass through the traditional territories of First Nations. In fact, in B.C., most of these territories remain subject to aboriginal land claims.

That fact was a recurring theme of The National Aboriginal Business Opportunities Conference, held this week in Prince Rupert and organized by Aboriginal Market Place.

Chief Harold Leighton of Metlakatla First Nation and Mayor Gary Reece of Lax Kw’alaams First Nation welcomed big business, big banking and representatives from all sectors of the Canadian economy to the conference, a coming together of First Nations and the Canadian business sector to discuss opportunities in the energy, natural resources and transportation sectors..

The business community is starting to see the benefit of engaging with First Nations early in the process (a more sophisticated approach to aboriginal engagement), rather than when all other avenues have been exhausted. The First Nations in attendance were presented with the potential opportunities available in their territories in forestry, mining, energy and refining.

The Conference "touched on key economic drivers and questions from Aboriginal delegates raised important issues." says Keith Henry of KCD Consulting and master of ceremonies. "There was a sense of optimism but caution in terms of ensuring meaningful economic participation of local First Nations and a balance of aboriginal values such as the ensuring sustainability of the environment. It was such an honour to co-facilitate the successful two-day event."

In the old days, aboriginal engagement consisted of a company coming to a First Nation, asking "Which one of you is the chief?" and then making vague promises of potential jobs for band members. While some companies may still be using this approach, the game has changed. While employment continues to be a major concern, First Nations are now looking to come to the table as partners. Equal partners.

After the collective sigh and nationwide eye-rolling at the idea of First Nations as equal partners in major business has passed, allow me to elaborate. First Nations want to come to the table as equal partners — with money.

Until recently, First Nations did not have access to the kind of capital it takes to participate in major projects. What has changed is that more and more First Nations are being scheduled to the First Nations Fiscal Management Act, 2005 and are being certified by the First Nations Financial Management Board. For the First Nations communities that have achieved certification for their financial performance, they can now access large capital on the international bond market through the First Nations Finance Authority.

This capital is secured by a First Nation’s "own source revenue" or revenue streams that they have secured outside of government program funding. These revenues can be from contracts, land leases, impact benefit agreements, band-owned business, resource sharing agreements, royalties and many others. Every First Nation has own source revenue out of a necessity to diversify their funding sources. What has changed is the new-found ability to leverage those small revenue streams into large capital to be re-invested into major resource projects.

Suddenly, First Nations are being taken seriously by big business and the scramble is on to find qualified aboriginal engagement officers. Equal partnership with a First Nation now means greatly reduced risk, access to human resources and avoidance of historical legal entanglements.

The benefits to the First Nation in partnering with big business are access to expertise, equipment and experience while greatly increasing its own source revenue base.

For those First Nations that have achieved these partnerships with industry, the most significant change has been to their balance sheets. First Nations that historically had 95 per cent of their budgets coming from government sources have reversed the tables, creating the vast majority of their own revenue. Unemployment rates are dropping and many First Nations are having to hire from off-reserve to keep up with the demand.

The significant shift amongst First Nations is in going from managing poverty to managing wealth. The effect of industry partnership is a greater quality of life for First Nations and a healthier Canadian economy.


— Frank Busch is a Troy Media columnist.

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