The COVID-19 crisis has upended the daily routines of Canadians and devastated the economy. As public health officials work to contain the virus, many of us have turned our thoughts to where the bottom lies and what a recovery will look like.

Some people have estimated that unemployment levels at the peak of the crisis may reach as high as 25 percent. Most Canadians can’t even fathom that, having heard about it only from grandparents or great-grandparents who lived through the Great Depression. But for First Nations people living on reserve, unemployment on this scale is a fact of life. And we feel its devastating consequences every day: stress, depression, addictions, family violence and chronic illness.

In the new normal that we create after COVID, it is essential that job creation and economic development programs work for all Canadians, including Indigenous peoples. As chair of the First Nations Major Projects Coalition, a coalition of 67 First Nations working to enhance the economic well-being of our members, I have already been considering ways to ensure First Nations have opportunities to participate in large resource projects — from the needed expansion of Canada’s electricity power grids to mining to oil and gas— as true partners. As we rebuild our economy, we have a real opportunity to think about a recovery that works for everyone.

For Canada, shifting from the COVID crisis to strong GDP growth will necessitate pushing ahead with these major projects. Over the past decades, jurisdictional overlap, unclear regulations, and avoidable court challenges from First Nations have left billions of dollars in investment on the table. For the collective good of our economic future and well-being, we must be prepared to embrace solutions that get beyond the difficulties of the past. The demand for economic recovery will not allow us the luxury of time and we will need to be ready to act. Going forward, we need to do two things.

The first is to ensure that Indigenous communities are fully included in the major resource projects that cross our territories. Most of us want development and are supportive of responsible projects, so long as appropriate environmental protections are put in place and our communities benefit socially and economically. These are not radical demands; they are current best practices, and there are many excellent examples of project proponents and Indigenous communities working closely with each other to mutual benefit. But more work needs to be done to bring about a shift in Canadian business culture: from seeing Indigenous engagement as a cost centre, and a risk to be mitigated, to recognizing the value we can bring to projects as true partners.

The second thing is for First Nations themselves to be part of the solution and help move good developments along. Past experience has made Indigenous peoples wary of industry’s and government’s intentions in our territories. After COVID, we need to play a constructive role in rebuilding the economy for everyone’s benefit, and we must focus on improving the outcomes for major projects in Canada through co-development.

How will we create this new normal — a resource sector that seeks and aspires to full partnership with Indigenous communities? The establishment of a national benefits sharing framework for major projects on Indigenous territory is part of what we believe could help turn the tide. In order for a national framework to have an impact, it must support Indigenous groups with access to capital, such as competitive rates and loan guarantees; provide access to independent professional advice and counsel necessary to undertake due diligence on projects; and conduct rigorous and robust environmental review processes that adhere to standards adopted by First Nations communities.

If it was not clear before, it is clear today that we are better off working with, rather than against, one another. Like the public health measures we are all practising today, from distancing to washing hands to wearing masks, economic measures will work only if we all contribute and benefit. The First Nations Major Projects Coalition is ready with ideas and solutions. These conversations need to start today.

This article is part of the The Coronavirus Pandemic: Canada’s Response special feature.

Photo: Ontario Premier Doug Ford shakes hands with Chief Cornelius, Wabasse Webequie First Nation, left, and Chief Bruce Achneepineskum, Marten Falls First Nation, centre, after signing a new deal in the ring of fire in Northern Ontario at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s annual convention in Toronto on March 2, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

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Sharleen Gale
Sharleen Gale is chief of the Fort Nelson First Nation and chair of the First Nations Major Projects Coalition.

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