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Tsilhqot'in Nation Gives Canada a New Chance to Do It Right

Why our era of resource giveaways may be over.

Mitchell Anderson 30 Jun

Mitchell Anderson is a Vancouver based freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Tyee. He is writing a book, The Oil Vikings: What Norway can teach the world about wise resource use. Find his Tyee series reported from Norway here and all his pieces published by The Tyee here.

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Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs: the terms of the deal are no longer the same.

Culture and natural resources may seem to have little in common, but their intersection is about to become very important in Canada. The sweeping decision by the Supreme Court granting aboriginal land title to the Tsilhqot'in Nation means First Nations will be in the driver's seat for virtually all forestry, mining or pipeline projects on their unceded traditional territories. This matters because people with an ancient cultural connection to a particular piece of land have a different level of determination to control and protect it.

Back in the early part of the last century, French and German industrialists started purchasing land in fjords of Norway, which were ideal sites for hydroelectric dams. Norwegians of the day were not opposed to hydro electricity, but they were shocked that people from another nation could simply purchase parts of their country that had been continuously occupied by the same families dating back to the Iron Age.

The uproar lead to the hasty passage of legislation by the Norwegian parliament colloquially known as the "panic laws," which halted the land grab until Norwegians clarified for themselves how they wanted to engage with foreign investors.

Several years later, Norway again started allowing companies to contribute their capital and expertise to building dams on the condition that they instructed Norwegians how to do it themselves and that the dams reverted to the Norwegian Crown after a lease of 60 years. Outside interests could invest in a junior partnership with the Norwegian government, but the bottom line was that the land and resources belonged to Norway and they were not for sale.

Around the time these hydro leases came due, Norway discovered offshore oil and they essentially adopted the same arrangement with foreign petroleum companies. They now have $900 billion in the bank. That is the power of culture.

The Tsilhqot'in are an excellent local example of such power. Like other First Nations (and Norwegians), they have continuously occupied their traditional territories for thousands of years. As long as their culture remains intact, they are prepared to fight very hard to protect the land so inextricably entwined with it. This latest court battle started in 2002 with a trial that lasted more than 300 days. More than a decade and two legal appeals later they finally have their victory.

This determination is all the more remarkable given how close native culture was to being extinguished in Canada. Small pox eliminated more than 90 per cent of the First Nations population in many parts of North America. Laws prohibiting the potlatch ceremony were on the books until 1954. Generations of native children were taken from their families into the residential school system. Canada is proud of being perhaps the most accommodating nation in the world to virtually every other culture -- expect ironically the cultures that were originally here.


Non-native Canada has a very different idea of culture and place. As comparatively recent immigrants, we migrate to where the jobs are and leave when they are gone. There are over 160 ghost towns in British Columbia alone. Places like Granite Creek, Fisherville and Minto City that once teamed with thousands of transient workers lay abandoned after the resources were extinguished. That pattern of transience continues today as evidenced by regular direct flights between Fort McMurray and St. John's, Newfoundland.

The luminary Canadian historian Harold Ennis described our nation using something he called the Staples Thesis -- the idea that Canada's evolution as a nation followed the successive exploitation of various commodities such as the fur trade, cod fishery, wheat and timber.

While his ideas have fallen out of fashion in academia, our recent fixation with petroleum development would seem to fit that pattern nicely. And for all our natural wealth, this country and our transient culture has a wretched record of extracting value from our natural bounty.

Canada's timber and petroleum alone have been valued at $33 trillion, yet for some reason the second most wealthy country in the world after Saudi Arabia cannot afford postal delivery, the CBC or teachers. In 2012, Canada collected less than one-fifth of the revenue per barrel of oil equivalent compared to Norway.

If Canada is to break the pattern of allowing outside interests to export largely unprocessed resources, First Nations -- who have long-suffered injustice on the altar of resource development -- might ironically be the agent of that change.

'Think like an owner'

In spite of decades of neglect or outright intent to extinguish First Nations culture, native groups in Canada are experiencing a renaissance of sorts compared to the dangerous nadir of several decades ago. Coupled with a string of court victories at the highest levels, First Nations in Canada now have perhaps the best chance of replicating the Norwegian success story by virtue of their distinctly different world view.

Former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed eloquently advised Albertans to "think like an owner" of their vast petroleum wealth. Obviously that has not come to pass and may well be impossible now given how far removed Alberta has become from Lougheed's vision.

There is no guarantee that just because First Nations have greater control over resource use that this will happen in a more equitable or responsible way. However, there is now a remarkable opportunity to recalibrate our resource economy in a way that retains far more wealth in local communities. More than a century of evidence indicates that non-native Canada is culturally incapable of this task.

Canadian First Nations would do well to seek counsel from their Norwegian counterparts on how to make the most of the hard-won Tsilhqot'in victory -- not merely to extract higher resource rents from outside interests, but also to move up the value chain. This sharp break from the Staples Thesis pointedly articulated by professor Innis would be decidedly un-Canadian, and long overdue.  [Tyee]

Read more: Indigenous, Energy, Environment

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