Vancouver Sun – D Penner

Companies need to start talking to local First Nations about consent before they spend millions of dollars on a project, a conference has been told.

Companies need to start talking to local First Nations about consent before they spend millions of dollars on a project, a conference has been told. THE CANADIAN PRESS

 

The idea of granting Indigenous communities the power of consent over resource development is a solution, not a problem, in building the certainty that many industries in B.C. are demanding, argues lawyer Cynthia Callison.

That would be a step beyond the existing standards in Canada that First Nations be consulted and accommodated when they have Aboriginal title in an area under development. But it would result in better decisions that balance the distribution of benefits from development, she said.

“Industry should be out there seeking that consent long before they invest millions of dollars in an environmental process, when it turns out an environmental assessment certificate isn’t going to give them social licence or Indigenous licence,” Callison said in an interview.

Callison, from the Tahltan First Nation, was part of a panel discussion at the Resources for Future Generations conference n Vancouver. The panel was discussing who owns resources, who gets the benefits they provide, and how those resources are regulated.

Callison said the system is moving toward the concept of consent as the federal and provincial governments have committed to adopting the principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and have ordered reviews of their environmental assessment processes.

The question, said panel moderator Jessica Bratty, is how governments, industries and communities cooperate on resource development.

B.C. has taken steps toward more equitable sharing of resource benefits, Callison said. Impact and benefit agreements with companies and revenue sharing agreements with government are now routine for First Nations.

However, with many Indigenous communities still at the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder, Callison said more needs to be done.

Too often, Callison said, resource companies make decisions on a risk-based model, rather than focusing on the value of relationships with First Nations.

The key is focusing on those relationships and involving communities in discussions about possible project designs and community concerns early on, she said. Companies should realize that “if they have Indigenous licence and have consent for a project, then they have certainty.”

From the provincial perspective, it is a matter of “decolonizing” the process, said Doug Donaldson, the minister of forests, lands and natural resource operations.

“I represent a government who was elected on a platform that made significant commitments to First Nations,” Donaldson said, which includes implementing the UN declaration and the recommendations of the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Donaldson said it might be better to start thinking from the beginning about who owns resource rights and sharing decision making between government and Indigenous communities.

“Let’s sit down and find out how we’re going to jointly manage the landscape,” Donaldson said in an interview. “That’s the essence.”

“Governments and industries should stop proceeding as if the Crown has title (to land) and proceed on the assumption that Indigenous people have title,” said panelist Ian Gill, author, longtime CEO of the conservation organization Ecotrust and now consultant with his own firm, Cause + Effect.

That would mean Indigenous communities wouldn’t have to go through courts to prove title and could do planning to maintain environmental protection, cultural and economic development.

“If there’s anywhere in the world where we can get this jurisdictional soup boiled to the right temperature, it’s Canada,” Gill said.

depenner@postmedia.com