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D'Avignon op-ed: Economic reconciliation with First Nations looks promising (Vancouver Sun)

By Greg D'Avignon

British Columbia is a diverse and relatively wealthy province. This diversity comes in many forms, including environmental, economic and cultural. Reconciling and harnessing this diversity is what has enabled B.C. to build and sustain a high standard of living and of livability.

However, we are still performing below our collective potential in significant ways.

Within this broad canvas, the province has only recently begun a new relationship between government, First Nations and industry. This relationship has its legal foundations in constitutionally protected aboriginal rights and title and, more directly, in a new era of economic partnerships that both governments and industry have entered into with many of B.C.’s First Nations.

While there is broad support for economic reconciliation in the province, we are increasingly confronted, in the media at least, with what appear to be two conflicting perceptions of the future. In one (widely reported) version, First Nations are using their legal rights to halt economic activity, to assert title (ownership), and protect traditional ways and historic rights. In this perspective, confrontation appears to be the norm, with limited economic development activity taking place amid a growing sense of frustration on the part of investors and First Nations.

There is another markedly different perspective. In this (less reported) version, the current and future state of First Nations engagement in B.C. is based on a collaborative model built around negotiated agreements that often result in mutual benefit. In this reality, First Nations are active leaders and partners with government and industry in developing the underlying wealth found in their rights and title interests in many areas of B.C. Not easy work, but in this perspective positive results are the norm.

So which perspective is more accurate?

To answer this, we need first to understand the diversity of First Nations in B.C. and avoid the trap of positing a false over-arching dichotomy of conflict or harmony. The province has 203 First Nations and is home to 60 per cent of all the First Nations language groups in Canada. While there are tensions in this evolving relationship, as well as legal and project specific conflicts, over-all it is the Business Council’s view the province is advancing down a path of economic reconciliation. This path is delivering a growing set of benefits to First Nations and producing positive results for all citizens.

The headlines highlight and amplify conflicts and legal disputes but today these are more the exception than the norm in B.C. What we see on the ground is hundreds of agreements between industry, First Nations and governments that are delivering mutual benefits.

B.C. has made progress compared with other provinces in instituting effective consultation and accommodation policies, while establishing revenue-sharing and other economic engagement tools that help to reconcile the Crown’s obligations with First Nations rights and title interests.

To better quantify and understand what has been happening on the ground, the Business Council — in co-operation with the Aboriginal Business Investment Council — has taken a closer look at some of the empirical results of First Nations economic engagement in B.C. In a series of three reports, to be released in the coming weeks, we examine emerging data that highlights the status of economic reconciliation in our province.

While much remains to be done, the results of this research are encouraging.

Fundamentally, through both past legal precedents and proactive engagement, there is a sea change in economic reconciliation occurring in B.C. reconnecting First Nations communities across the province with the economic wealth found in their traditional territories. In addition to the hundreds of economic agreements between First Nations, industry and government, the data shows there are more than 1,000 aboriginal-owned (defined as 50 per cent or more ownership) businesses in the province.

These trends are charting a new path forward for resource development in many areas of the province. However, economic reconciliation also creates challenges to meet new demands. These include capacity and funding issues for all parties to manage the new forms of engagement, planning and (legal/business) agreements required to build successful development strategies.

B.C. has world-class natural resources and much of the infrastructure needed for all to benefit. But we also have many competitors who face fewer legal and regulatory complexities. In the end, resource and infrastructure development produces a finite amount of “economic rent” to distribute to all. As our research will show, increasingly B.C.’s challenge will be to ensure that the momentum that can come from economic reconciliation with First Nations is based on a shared understanding of how to convert our opportunities into tangible projects that lead to a fair distribution of benefits in an increasingly competitive world.

Done right, we believe B.C. can prosper and be a leader in reconciliation with First Nations.

As posted online at http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/op-ed/Opinion+Economic+reconciliation+with+First+Nations+looks/10191901/story.html