In the polarized “environment versus economy” debate we have, there is often an assumption, or assertion, that indigenous peoples are mostly against resource development. This is manifested in blockades, protests in legislatures and university campuses, and cries from activists that they stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples when they oppose mining, oil and gas, and fishing projects. commercial, hydropower and forestry.
For those familiar with the subject, it has always been a bit confusing. Resource development is often the main economic engine of Indigenous communities, providing income for nations and well-paying jobs closer to home. Aboriginal businesses are 40 times more likely to be involved in the extractive industry than Canadian businesses.
There are absolutely cases where indigenous nations have had disputes with resource companies and their rights have been violated. But this is not the same as being against resource development in principle. Public debate on the issue has failed to capture this key distinction: indigenous peoples are generally not opposed to development; they are opposed to not being included, and they are against taking risks without reaping the rewards.
To test this hypothesis, the Indigenous Resource Network, a platform for Indigenous workers and business owners involved in resource development, commissioned a survey from Environics Research. A total of 549 self-identified First Nations, Métis and Inuit people living in rural areas or on reserves across Canada were interviewed by telephone between March 25 and April 16.
The poll found that a majority, 65 percent, said they supported natural resource development, while only 23 percent were opposed. When asked how they would feel if a new project came up near their own community, supporters outweighed opponents 2 to 1 (54 to 26 percent). Not surprisingly, support was higher among working-age respondents (35 to 54) (70%) than younger (18 to 34, at 56%), while Indigenous men were more likely to ‘oppose resource development (28 percent) than indigenous women (19 percent).
Asked more specifically about the types of resource development, most supported both mining (59% in favor vs. 32% against) and oil and gas development (53% for, against 41% against). The main reason given was the “urgent priority” of access to health care which accompanies economic development and employment. They said other issues, such as governance, education, traditional activities and federal transfers, were less important.
All of this points to a path towards greater social acceptance of indigenous peoples to develop resources. For many respondents, their support depends on the likely costs and benefits to them and their communities, as is the case for most people. Respondents were more likely to support a project if it followed best practices for: protecting the environment (79 percent), ensuring safety (77 percent) and benefiting the community economically, for example by providing jobs and business opportunities (77 percent). Interestingly, community consultation (69%) and consent (62%) were not as important, although public discourse tends to emphasize them.
Perhaps the most important conclusion was that the more a respondent thought he knew about the issue, the more likely he or she was to support resource development. Those who work in the industry or discuss it beyond social media have a much better understanding of what is needed for a project to be approved, the standards that must be met, and the remediation that must take place when ‘a project is terminated or decommissioned. For them, it is more than saying yes or no to resource development; it’s about ensuring that projects meet the highest possible standards.
The relationship between the resource sector and aboriginal communities is not perfect. But it is economically important, and we would be well served by improving it, not by separating it. It is high time to push the discussion on indigenous peoples and resource development beyond polarizing and simplistic slogans. We hope this survey will do just that. Most indigenous peoples support resource development when high environmental standards are applied and good jobs and economic benefits ensue. Let’s make sure this is the case for every project.
John Desjarlais Jr. is a Cree-Métis from Kaministikominahikoskak. He is the Managing Director of Great Plains Construction and a member of the Advisory Board of the Indigenous Resource Network. Heather Exner-Pirot is a Research Advisor with the Indigenous Resource Network and a member of the Macdonald Laurier Institute.
This column has been retouched after publication.
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