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Are First Nations at a Crossroads?

This is supposed to be the Sovereignty Summer for thousands of disaffected Indigenous people in Canada. Idle No More and Defenders of the Land have been training members to take various forms of direct action aimed at reversing some of the policies of the Harper government.

Moreover, divisions within First Nations chiefs and regional associations are said to be so profound that earlier this week (on July 15-16, 2013) the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) held its annual meeting in Whitehorse, Yukon while a separate group of chiefs formed a new alliance and held an overlapping National Treaty Gathering at Onion Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan. National AFN Chief Shawn Atleo’s leadership has been called into question over the lack of progress after two highly publicized meetings with Prime Minister Harper.

But these political fights are happening against an economic climate that could – or should – make these divisions moot. Many observers cite the massive resource boom as a perfect vehicle to empower First Nations and reduce their dependence on Ottawa.

In a rather positive recent report for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, authors Ken Coats and Brian Lee Crowley conclude that while there are many challenges, “most Indigenous governments are open to properly managed resource activities that bring significant long-term benefits to their communities (p. 20).”

Evidence for this could include the agreement between the Kitimat LNG project proponents (Apache and Chevron), the First Nations Group Limited Partnership and the BC government worth $232 million, which smoothed a path for a decision on this massive West Coast project. Further east, former Liberal Interim Leader Bob Rae has quit politics to represent First Nations’ interests in developing the so-called “Ring of Fire” mineral deposits in northern Ontario. And Québec’s massive development of its own north is being accomplished with the participation of the Cree and Innu First Nations.

In a recent speech to the Assembly of First Nations Annual Meeting in Whitehorse, former Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice said it succinctly: “[in business and politics] you don't get what you deserve. You get what you negotiate.” He also reminded the audience of First Nations chiefs that the legal duty to consult and accommodate “was created as a way to get to 'Yes,' not as a way to get to 'No.' It was created by judges to ensure that First Nations had a seat at the table in decisions involving resource development (…) It was not meant to serve as a mechanism to block projects, veto development or leave First Nations in continuing poverty.”

In a National Post column earlier this year, I wrote that “[o]nly the demonstration of progress—not just its promise—will quell the Idle No More movement.” This will be true for any other separatist group within the First Nations community. Actions speak louder than words, and success begets success – hopefully. The task at hand for the federal government is to act in a way that enables constructive First Nations involvement in resource development. Meanwhile, First Nations must embrace a paradigm shift that they are desired and willing participants in building Canada’s economic future.

Jean-Sébastien Rioux is Associate Director, International Policy, and Director, Master of Public Policy program, at The School of Public Policy. You can follow him on Twitter at @jsrioux