Wednesday, April 23, 2014
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Folly to neglect First Nations

The Starphoenix


An Ottawa-commissioned report released this week by Vancouver lawyer Doug Eyford not only is an indictment of government-aboriginal relations of the past, but it serves as a warning for Saskatchewan to tread much more carefully in developing its resource industry.

Considered in conjunction with a New York Times story about the changed attitude toward carbon taxes by the world's biggest oil companies, the report by Mr. Eyford, who was appointed this year as Canada's special federal representative on West Coast energy infrastructure, joins a growing body of evidence on how much politics in Canada has put the country on the wrong side of history.

His report, Forging Partnerships, Building Relationships, states that "aboriginal communities hold constitutionally protected rights" which must be respected. Otherwise projects could be delayed or cancelled, he writes.

Although he deals specifically with Alberta and British Columbia, Mr. Eyford's observations on aboriginal attitudes to development and the environment reflect closely what First Nations from Saskatchewan to New Brunswick have been saying.

His report was released on the day that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to discuss similar concerns regarding the development of the Ring of Fire area 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay that contains an estimated $60 billion in minerals. That development will affect several First Nations and requires a multiparty agreement among companies, governments and aboriginal bands to build the infrastructure and provide the labour.

According to a study by the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy, getting such a deal will require rebuilding trust with aboriginals groups who are leery after years of neglect and bad politics. The school found a great lack of confidence in the trustworthiness of governments and companies on protecting the rights of First Nations.

Governments may believe they can neglect First Nations because of their relative size compared to the rest of Canada, but to get on the wrong side of the moral argument provides greater legitimacy to other groups who are willing to ally themselves with the perceived victims as a way to sway public opinion. That's a reason why we see Unifor, Canada's largest private sector union, allying itself with First Nations to oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline.

If the Saskatchewan Party continues to use resource revenue sharing with First Nations as a political stick to beat up the NDP, it will sour relationships in this province, too.

Similarly, relationships with industry can be damaged if Canada's conservative parties continue to attack the idea of a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade system.

The New York Times reports that more than two dozen of America's biggest corporations, including the five major oil companies, already are planning for a carbon tax of about $60 a tonne, believing that a tax is a more economically efficient way to deal with the cost of carbon than the higher hidden costs that accrue from stricter regulation.

Unless governments are willing to put aside partisan politics and adopt evidence-based policy development, the opportunities Mr. Eyford identifies will go unrealized.

The editorials that appear in this space represent the opinion of The StarPhoenix. They are unsigned because they do not necessarily represent the personal views of the writers. The positions taken in the editorials are arrived at through discussion among the members of the newspaper's editorial board, which operates independently from the news departments of the paper.

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