If I had to count the number of times I have heard that we need to “lift Indigenous people out of poverty” and “make Indigenous people equal and productive partners in Canada’s social and economic fabric,” I just would not know where or when to begin. It seems I have been hearing similar sentiments going back more than 45 years.

We heard it from politicians dating back to the Supreme Court’s decision in Calder in 1973.

We heard it from the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996.

We heard it from Prime Minister Stephen Harper in the government’s apology on residential schools on June 11, 2008.

We heard it during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process and in the commission’s calls to action in 2015.

And we are especially hearing it now in what appears to be the Liberal government’s desire to open nation-to-nation relationships with Indigenous peoples and to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

This is just a smattering of what has, up to now, proven to be nothing more than lip service.

Indigenous people still lag behind the rest of the country in educational achievements. Many Indigenous people live in overcrowded homes in communities that lack the infrastructure to provide safe drinking water to their people. It is a well-known fact that the rate of incarceration of Indigenous persons in our prisons far exceeds that of the non-Indigenous population, as does the proportion of Indigenous children in foster homes.

It is time we recognized that poverty is at the root of the social malaise in which many of our Indigenous people find themselves. Most Indigenous people in this country are not as lucky as some of their western First Nations cousins, who are sitting on oil and gas reserves and have found themselves in a bargaining position that would be the envy of many. And more power to them. The result in places like Fort McKay First Nation in Alberta — which is prospering from the oil sands service businesses it has built —  is perhaps what meaningful partnerships are supposed to look like looking at it from a distance.

It is time to take a new approach to how we create wealth in Indigenous communities. Despite the many efforts to roll out various government economic development programs, which support projects like building service stations and hotels, what we as a country need to do is turn our minds to how we attract new investment to Indigenous communities.

The federal government has a policy that deals with addressing past wrongs: cases where First Nations have lost land through, among other things, the unlawful surrender of reserve land. Many of the events that gave rise to today’s land claims happened well over a century ago. The policy deals with the settlement of specific claims. In the Atlantic region of Canada, the process tends to take years, sometimes decades, to resolve and usually involves financial compensation determined by actuarial calculations. It also often involves the replacement of lost land by allowing the First Nations to acquire new land to add to their reserves.

Canada’s offshore hydrocarbon resources hold huge potential for growth, which up to now has been the domain of the oil companies. Canadians should start thinking about the ownership of those lands and the benefits that flow from them in a different way, starting with the creation of a new deal for First Nations.

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I can hear the arguments before a discussion like this even gets started. People will say that the offshore areas are not traditional Indian lands, nor have Indigenous people traditionally played a role in the development of offshore oil and gas. Let’s look at it another way. The whole industry of offshore oil exploration and production is anything but traditional and is a new economic driver, particularly in eastern Canada. What long traditional history of activity does Canada or its provinces have in the offshore that entitles the government to control land leases and choose who has access to them? Canada was not involved in offshore oil and gas at the time of contact — that is, when Euro-immigrants landed on the shores of North America, 500 years ago.

The place to start is to set aside lands in the offshore known to hold significant resources for willing Indigenous communities to control.

We need to consider how to involve more Indigenous communities in the benefits associated with oil exploration and production. The place to start is to set aside lands in the offshore known to hold significant resources for willing Indigenous communities to control so that they become the authorities negotiating with the oil companies for exploration and drilling rights. What could possibly be wrong with that idea?

Today the government tells First Nations that they are free to find land for economic development purposes, adjacent to their reserves. (Often that is difficult. Try finding high-potential land in New Brunswick that is not already controlled by a major entity!) Rather than that approach, let’s see how the government can work with Indigenous communities to acquire land in the offshore so they can work with the oil companies to develop arrangements that will see revenue-sharing, employment and other benefits. This approach would create sustainable, lasting resources for their communities. It is a way to share the wealth.

In 1978, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Roméo LeBlanc reserved three deep-sea shrimp fishing licences for fishermen’s organizations in Labrador. Much of the newly discovered resource was off the Labrador coast. New entities were born in Labrador, owned and controlled by the fishermen, and the early days saw a plethora of foreign and domestic interests travelling to Labrador to meet with fishermen to make deals. And many deals were made. People new to this fishery became trained and employed on the vessels in the offshore fishery. Money began flowing to the companies that the fishermen owned, by way of licence fees, and that allowed the community-based companies to invest in other ventures in the community.

In southern Labrador, for example, new fish plants were built, new resources harvested and new jobs created. Additionally, as a result of those licence fees, the people created their own credit union, which has been highly successful. So with the stroke of a pen, and not insignificant vision, LeBlanc transformed many coastal communities by creating these new opportunities and diversifying an economy that benefited Indigenous people.

Yet there were those voices that said to Indigenous fishermen, “You people have no place in this fishery. You have no tradition in it. You are babes in the woods. Leave this to the big boys!” Well, Labrador fishermen were persistent and held onto LeBlanc’s vision. They continue to be players in this offshore fishery, whether the “big boys” like it or not.

To help “lift Indigenous people out of poverty,” Canada can do something similar with respect to the management of offshore oil lands and resources. All it takes is political guts, visionary leadership and an open mind, as Roméo LeBlanc demonstrated in the late 1970s.

Photo: Verena Matthew/Shutterstock.com

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Bill Flowers
Bill Flowers is part of the Labrador Inuit community. He is retired from the public service and lives in Amherst, N.S. He graduated from Dalhousie Law School. In 2022, Bill published his first novel “Olav’s Story.”

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