Cross Country Checkup

First Nations deserve resource rights, but 'almighty dollar' encourages risky development: activist

Many agree that First Nations should have more access to their resources, Cross Country Checkup heard Sunday. But development must be sustainable and incorporate Indigenous teachings.

'There will no longer be any cedar trees that are big enough to build canoes or to make the totem poles'

Arnie Nagy, left, expressed concerns over the handling of First Nations natural resource developments during a Cross Country Checkup live show in Prince Rupert, B.C. (Ayesha Barmania/CBC)

It's not easy for Canada's First Nations to act as both land protectors and drivers of economic development. But it is possible, says an Indigenous leader.

"We're Canada's first entrepreneurs," J.P. Gladu, president of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business told Duncan McCue, host of Cross Country Checkup.

"There's always been an impact on the resources ... now there's an opportunity to build a modern-day economy and we know that there are going to be impacts."

In a live broadcast from Prince Rupert, B.C., Sunday, Canadians weighed in on whether it's time to transfer resource rights back to First Nations. Despite decades of commissions and reports, the issue of land rights remains contentious — and unresolved.

While many of the First Nation members that spoke to Cross Country Checkup agree bands should have access to their own resources, some are worried about what increased access means for the environment.

"That is the toughest question of the day," Gladu said.

J.P. Gladu is president and CEO of the Canadian Council of Aboriginal Businesses.

No trees to 'carry on the culture'

First Nations across the country are reaping the benefits of extracting their resources.

Lax Kw'alaams in northwest B.C. has become the main player in that area's forestry industry, and annual revenues have been in the tens of millions.

But exporting lumber means deforestation in the area and that's something activist Arnie Nagy worries about.

"At the rate that resources are being extracted, in 10, 15 years there will no longer be any cedar trees that are big enough to build canoes or to make the totem poles to carry on the culture," he said.

"The almighty dollar seems to have gotten in the way."

We need to make sure that our people are integrated all the way through decision making.- J.P. Gladu

Consultation needed

Though Nagy supports First Nations' control over their resources, he believes there are problems with the way communities are consulted about extraction by both natural resource companies and the community's own leaders.

Extracting resources requires capital, which First Nations often lack, he said. When third-party companies enter an investment deal with a nation's officials, the band's membership isn't always consulted.

That has led to "confrontations and blockades," Nagy said, pointing to protests in the Gitxsan territory.

"The traditional values that we have been taught growing up by our hereditary leaders … have been put on the back shelf and they are left out of the question."

Cross Country Checkup host Duncan McCue asked an audience at the North Coast Meeting and Convention Centre whether it's time to transfer resource rights back to First Nations. (Ayesha Barmania/CBC)

Could be a boon

​The way forward, according to Gladu, is ensuring First Nations work closely with industry. That's beginning to happen, he says.

"There are 40-plus communities in Prince George — First Nations — that have come together and set out a framework for engagement with industries that come to their territories.

"We need to make sure that our people are integrated all the way through decision making from project conception to execution to closure," said Gladu.

He believes resource extraction could be a boon to First Nations communities.

However, he acknowledges that band members need to be given opportunities and funding to protect lands — be it with a tugboat that patrols water ways or technology that supports "better progress" on pipelines and mining.

"Integrating all sorts of the life cycle of a business opportunity and the resource sector is really, I think, where the opportunity lies."