By Ron Wallace and Colleen Collins
Published in the Calgary Herald
February 22, 2020
It would probably be premature to declare that the Trudeau government’s initiative for Indigenous reconciliation has proved to be a complete failure. However, this government cannot say that it was not warned.
Canadians have a core belief in peace, order and good government and have embraced a willingness to do the right thing for our Indigenous Peoples notwithstanding the fact that vague and unrealistic promises of the current government may have engendered unfulfillable expectations. Apologies fall far short of an understanding of the economic needs and aspirations of the Indigenous Peoples across Canada. Having previously embraced, encouraged and emboldened various political forces of the more extreme environmental movement, this government has inherited the whirlwind.
In his 2015 victory speech, Justin Trudeau declared: “Sunny ways, my friends. Sunny ways!” and thereafter proclaimed a “framework” for the recognition and implementation of Indigenous rights. Significantly, the government neither defined “reconciliation” nor the means required to achieve it.
Now, accompanying unprecedented protests extending across Canada is the evolving spectacle of buck-passing and equivocation among political leaders of all stripes floundering in the arena of “reconciliation.” This, when combined with decades of neglect, is beginning to erode the moral authority of the police, our regulators and even our legislators.
Recall the heady 2017 joint announcement by Trudeau and B.C.’s Premier John Horgan for a $40-billion liquified natural gas export terminal in British Columbia. Trudeau was eager to boast that Canada wouldn’t “build energy projects like we could in the old days when the environment and the economy were seen as opposing forces” but instead lauded approaches that “… takes the environment into account and that works in meaningful partnership with Indigenous communities.”
In truth, the project and pipeline had received regulatory approvals from regulators in 2014, well before the Trudeau government was even sworn into office. Notwithstanding these brave pronouncements, the project and pipeline remain mired in protests across Canada.
Capitalizing on resource partnerships between First Nations and developers presents the clearest economic path forward for Indigenous communities. After years of court challenges that have clarified Indigenous rights, those rights are being used as a basis for real economic participation in the resource economy. Witness the many First Nations and resource companies that have been doing the hard work to move from poverty to prosperity. There are sterling examples of the entrepreneurial successes achieved in the Alberta oilsands region by the Fort McKay group of companies, the recent $50-million initiative announced by Cenovus Energy Inc. to construct 200 new homes in six First Nations and Métis communities near their operations and the Indigenous interest in equity participation in the TMX pipeline.
Regrettably, the Trudeau government has foreclosed many potential avenues for future Indigenous resource partnerships not only by directly rejecting projects based on reasoned evidence but by elevating political and regulatory risks to levels that compromise capital investment. These are outcomes from a political leadership that demands a final say on projects approved by independent, expert regulators and that accepts pressure tactics to overturn the decisions of previous governments (ie. the Northern Gateway project).
In 2019 the C.D. Howe Institute warned that Trudeau’s regulatory initiatives were “likely to worsen Canada’s present disease” of resource investments that had declined by roughly $100 billion between 2017 and 2018, including 37 cancelled projects worth $77 billion. Each project represented an opportunity for First Nations and industry to work together and a material opportunity for jobs and wealth creation in First Nations.
The federal government now finds itself trapped in an endless melodrama of consultations and fruitless litigation in search of “reconciliation” potentially further complicated by the proposed adoption of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Governments undercut their commitment to the environment and the economy when they undermine regulatory certainty with arbitrary decisions based on politics. Worse, having delegated the hard decisions to the courts, some politicians now point fingers at other jurisdictions and agencies while they struggle to overcome public disobedience.
If anyone is entitled to a tearful apology today, it is the Canadian public who may have considered peace, order and good government to be an inalienable right and for the First Nations and their corporate partners who have done what governments cannot do alone — to successfully advance the interests of Indigenous Peoples.
Ron Wallace was the founding COO of the Nunavut Resources Corp. and is a board member of the Canada West Foundation and Colleen Collins is the acting CEO of the Canada West Foundation.