If you have been wondering what all the fuss about resource extraction and development on First Nations land means, you need look no further than a recent report by the Fraser Institute. It reveals the enormous potential in wealth and jobs that can be created by developing these resources.
According to the report, 600 projects worth $650 billion depend on co-operation between First Nations and mining companies within the next 10 years.
With much of this development to take place in rural and northern Canada, where most First Nations are located, you might say a huge chunk of this country's future is at stake, especially when you recognize the population of First Nations and Métis is growing by almost 50 per cent while the rest of the Canadian population is increasing by only eight per cent.
If a fair share of the jobs and profits from that $650 billion in estimated value doesn't go to First Nations, which are plagued by poverty and unemployment, this country is going to face an economic mess like never seen before.
Resource development has been high on the list of priorities in Manitoba lately, as some First Nations, such as Mathias Colomb Cree Nation and Red Sucker Lake, are locked in legal and political fights with mining companies, while others have signed on with the new Mining Advisory Council, spearheaded by the Manitoba government, to bring First Nations and mining companies together to negotiate how resource extraction and development should proceed.
Besides ownership of the land, which First Nations must consent to for development to take place, First Nations offer the biggest potential workforce for the mining projects.
Fully half of that disproportionately growing population is under the age of 25, which is ideal for many to begin a lifelong career in mining, hydro and other resource development. At the same time, this moves education up the list of priorities, because only half of First Nations young people successfully complete high school, compared with 80 per cent of the rest of the Canadian population.
First Nations leaders are recommending a more common-sense approach to education by making academic curricula and training programs relevant and effective.
Besides making the non-vocational studies more culturally appropriate by incorporating First Nations history, culture and lifestyle into the classroom, training and diplomas should reflect what is required in the workplace as much as subjects students will never use after they graduate.
Employment requirements might be structured for the real world, where a driver's licence can be just as valuable as a diploma. Training on the job should be made available so the equivalent of apprenticeships can be gained for jobs such as construction and carpentry.
In other words, we must find a way to give consideration for employment to a responsible First Nations youth who can learn how to operate a forklift or backhoe without college training or apprenticeships that aren't readily available.
Another issue to which First Nations have always given higher priority than the mainstream private sector has been the effect resource extraction will have on the environment.
Despite the economic potential, some First Nations will not proceed with projects if they are harmful to the environment, and First Nations want to be consulted so effective controls can be placed on projects to minimize damage and maintain harmony with the Earth.
Mining companies and governments in Canada have a dismal track record in recent projects when it comes to identifying First Nations people as a priority for employment.
The Wuskwatim dam in northern Manitoba created only low-level, low-paying jobs, and First Nations workers often left because the work was demeaning and they were isolated, as the majority of workers on the project were from outside northern Manitoba, including many from Quebec, which made the working language of project camps more French than English.
Similarly, workers are brought in from Japan for projects in B.C. while unemployment rates on First Nations are "staggering," says B.C. Chief Ed John. Even Premier Greg Selinger admitted to me they need to find a way to "tighten up" these management and training contracts.
The Fraser report recommends better communication and transparency right from the start. But how many times have First Nations heard that before? At least they're talking and preparing reports, and there is more news coverage of issues related to resource extraction than there has been in the past.
But wow -- $650 billion! 600 projects! Along with high rates of poverty and unemployment in First Nations with much lower education levels. The solution to the problems are at hand. We are talking huge solutions for huge problems, but the enormous potential is right there in front of our eyes.
We must do this right this time around.
Don Marks is the Editor of Grassroots News