Business

Give indigenous people veto power over development on their lands, report urges

A coalition of resource companies, financial institutions, First Nations and conservation organizations has recommended that aboriginal bands have veto power over development on their traditional lands.

Resource companies join with conservationists to urge 'free, prior and informed consent'

Chief Roger William, right, of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation is flanked by chiefs and other officials after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation, granting it land title to 438,000 hectares of land. That ruling is helping to define consent over use of aboriginal lands. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

A coalition of resource companies, financial institutions, First Nations and conservation organizations has recommended that aboriginal bands have veto power over development on their traditional lands.

The Boreal Leadership Council – which includes resources companies such as Suncor Energy, Goldcorp and Tembec – released a report Monday that sets out recommendations for engagement with First Nations by business and government.

"Free, prior, and informed consent – the right of Indigenous peoples to offer or withhold consent to development that may have an impact on their territories or resources – is the key to development, not a barrier," said Boreal Leadership Council member Robert Walker of NEI Investments.

Chris McDonell of Tembec said it is a "prevailing myth" in Canada that there is nothing but conflict between resource development and indigenous communities

Treaty rights are protected under the Constitution, but there is confusion over how this should play out in resource development, the council said.

Landmark Supreme Court decision

The Supreme Court of Canada's 2014 Tsilhqot'in decision is defining the direction the law is taking as, in addition to granting title, it states the First Nation has the right to decide how the land will be used and authority to manage the land and its economic benefits.

Industry groups, including mining, petroleum and forestry organizations, have attempted to respond to the ruling, urging members to obtain consent and engage early with communities that might be affected by their projects.

The Forest Stewardship Council, a forest certification system, recently recommended a global initiative to incorporate "free, prior and informed consent" from First Nations communities into certification requirements for its companies.

The Boreal Leadership Council has suggested next steps for government, industry and aboriginal communities to encourage a collaborative process that leads to consent.

It says that will speed development in most cases, as it will forestall long and divisive legal cases.

Industry should engage early

The federal government should be working with communities and aboriginal governments to develop legal and policy tools that strengthen decision-making processes, the report said. There also needs to be capacity building to strengthen lands stewardship skills and resources in indigenous communities.

For industry, it recommends early and respectful engagement in any development process.

"While there is no "one size fits all" approach, early engagement can provide a foundation for the necessary working relationships and can provide the opportunity to establish impact benefit agreements that can help guide project development and management," the report said.

The council urged indigenous communities to share the lessons they have learned in working collaboratively on major projects. Among the lessons to be learned are how to structure internal governance and management of their communities in negotiation and implementation phases of development. 

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