By Jamie Catterall, The Starphoenix
Catterall is the director of aboriginal banking, prairies, in the Bank of Montreal's Central Canada division.
The challenges that face Canada's aboriginal communities are well known, and significant improvements have long proved elusive.
In 2010, Aboriginal Affairs and Economic Development Canada released an analysis that suggested there was limited progress in the wellbeing of indigenous communities between 2001 and 2006. In fact, the average well-being of those communities continued to rank significantly below that of other communities in Canada. Meanwhile, conditions on many reserves across the country remain poor.
But progress is being made on several fronts. Of particular importance is the opportunity for aboriginal communities across Canada to assert more influence over their economies, and we are seeing this take place on some reserves here in Saskatchewan. As a result, aboriginal people who have not shared historically in the wealth evident in the Canadian landscape are set to experience an era of prosperity.
One element of this opportunity lies in the financial implications for land claims and land compensation. Land claim agreements, for instance, have led to economic benefit for aboriginal communities. Changes to regulations about home ownership have also allowed for on-reserve home loan programs, and BMO has recently funded a number of housing projects in northern Saskatchewan.
There are great examples across Canada where aboriginal communities have negotiated impact-benefit agreements in mining, forestry and power generation. These agreements result in revenue-sharing and jobs, both of which have a tremendous impact on the local community.
Ongoing revenue streams may be used today, but in our experience, significant dollars are often set aside for future generations - a wise and generous practice.
Meanwhile, there has also been a shift over the past decade in how aboriginal people create revenue streams from businesses. Aboriginal businesses are becoming much more diverse. A wide range of examples include wineries, construction companies, farming, fishing, forestry, power development, medical facilities and others. Such businesses have become more common when driving ownsourced revenues.
The sum of all these developments is leading to unprecedented access to financial resources. This means First Nations communities are better positioned than ever before to improve their services and infrastructure. One way these resources have been used has been to build additional houses to alleviate local shortfalls.
In recent years, the First Nations Market Housing Fund has worked with financial institutions in Canada to provide aboriginal citizens with the loans necessary to build new housing, and purchase or renovate existing housing on reserve and settlement lands.
Since 2008, the FNMHF, through its credit enhancement facility, has approved more than $550 million in loan backing for 50 communities. The fund has also contributed millions of dollars in capacity-building to help strengthen First Nation governments in financial management, governance and community commitment.
The importance of this new capacity to develop infrastructure in aboriginal communities cannot be underestimated. BMO Economics has noted that spending on infrastructure not only can provide shortterm support for economic activity, but help an economy perform more efficiently over the longer haul by alleviating bottlenecks, and ensuring the smooth flow of people, goods and even information.
This applies to aboriginal communities as much as it does to any other jurisdiction.
As well, the growth of these opportunities will provide more job opportunities for aboriginal peoples - particularly younger members of the community - who remain over-represented among Canada's unemployed.
In my experience, qualified aboriginal communities have received funding for various projects that have made a real difference to their members. These run the gamut from the construction of generating stations, gymnasiums, schools and police stations to the financing of infrastructure projects such as sewers and water-treatment facilities.
One loan that BMO recently helped finance in Saskatchewan was for the Whitecap Dakota First Nation, which has built a casino in prime territory adjacent to a championship golf course near the biggest city in the province. We expect the business to thrive and to generate significant revenue for the community. Such projects have improved the lives of the people who live in the surrounding areas, both through the jobs they created and the services that were built.
Aboriginal business is a growing sector for the banking industry and has led to focus and special programs. With more partnerships being established every year, the future for aboriginal communities and their relationships with banks is bright.