Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Resources, not blame, key to sustainable First Nations economies

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Reset is a fashionable buzzword as Canada debates how Ottawa should treat aboriginal people.

As the federally appointed chairman of the First Nations Financial Management Board (FNFMB) -- and a member of the Squamish First Nation in B.C. -- I have a suggestion for all sides.

Let's hit the reset button on the debate itself before it grows into more of a blame game. Let's acknowledge all governments need to work on improving accountability, transparency and governance -- and get to work.

What concerns me is that the current debate is detracting attention from what truly is important to all Canadians, especially First Nations people.

How can we build a sustainable aboriginal economy that will lift native people out of poverty and dependence?

Economic empowerment for aboriginal peoples will reduce dependency on transfers from Ottawa for programs and services. It will create employment for all Canadians and contribute to growth overall.

The importance of economic empowerment is no better illustrated than First Nations' living conditions on the shores of James Bay. On the Ontario shore, we have Attawapiskat, a tragic, difficult situation that must be overcome.

On the Quebec side, native people live and participate in a sustainable regional economy; thanks to the millions of dollars they have reaped from partnership under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Development Agreement.

Because of predictable yearly revenues, those on the Quebec shore have been able to develop multi-year plans and administrative expertise that inspire confidence. This and the ability to be a contributing partner have created business opportunities not otherwise possible.

On the Ontario side, the squalor continues.

The board I chair can play a role here. The FNFMB has already assisted several First Nations in saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual debt-service costs by helping them develop financial practices certifiable under the First Nations Fiscal and Statistical Act.

FNFMB certification has allowed them to become borrowing members of the First Nations Finance Authority (FNFA).

The ability of the FNFA to offer reduced-interest loans that recognize First Nations as governments is a necessary step on the road to implementing economic independence.

We need to improve financial administration of First Nations so auditing issues don't detract from what we must address. Why don't communities such as Attawapiskat have an economy? How can they get an economy of their own?

After six years of dealing with First Nations as FNFMB chairman, I believe there has never been a more urgent time to focus on how we develop aboriginal economies and how our aboriginal youth can become part of the solution to the chronic labour shortage facing Canada, rather than part of the problem.

Some 400,000 aboriginal young people will join the workforce over the coming decade.

With $500 billion in proposed resource projects sitting on aboriginal territory and about 500 native communities that could be affected, there will be plenty of opportunity for partnerships with the private sector, Ottawa, the provinces and territories.

Ottawa can expedite many projects by providing loan guarantees as it did recently with the Muskrat Falls project on the lower Churchill River.

The provinces need to work with Ottawa and contribute to reshaping the fiscal framework that supports aboriginal entry and participation in the economy. A reasoned co-operative strategy is a better approach than continuing to rely on the courts for direction as we all have been doing.

If we continue to look at aboriginal policy in terms of social and accounting issues only, conditions at Attawapiskat and far too many others will stay mired in squalor and poverty forever. Canada and Canadians will not benefit if this is allowed to happen.

Harold Calla, founding chairman of the First Nations Financial Management Board, a Vancouver-based federal body, is a member of the Squamish First Nation, one of the wealthiest in Canada.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2013 A13

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