I travelled to Fort St. John last week to attend an Energy Conference and First Nations Economic Development Planning Group. The Premier had been there talking about the major shale gas deposits and the opportunity it presents and Site C among other things.
The 8 First Nations in the area, most of which are signatories to treaty 8, have been surrounded by Oil and Gas development. The area is rich with the resources that rightfully belong to the First Nations, and yet they are not benefitting fully from their own resources and are being left behind economically. Some of the First Nations have entered into revenue sharing agreements which is a step forward but there is still much to be done.
Most of the Treaty 8 First Nations Tribal Chiefs have come out against Site C dam and Chiefs Rolland Willson, Liz Logan, Derek Orr and Norman Davis and others have mounted a campaign to stop Site C. They feel there are other ways to create the kind of electricity Site C will produce without flooding vast areas of their territories and destroying a way of life and many important areas to their people. They met with the Premier and some of his Ministers in Fort St. John and expressed their concerns and ideas for alternatives but had no satisfaction from the meeting as the Premier walked into the Energy Conference and continued to promote Site C to the larger audience that was there.
The First Nations in the area will be relying on their rights and title and the legal requirement to be consulted in order to stop Site C. It really made me wonder if the 8 First Nations in the area were economic powers in the region would they be pushed aside in the same way they are now.
There are some thriving businesses that the First Nations around the Ft. St. John are part of and more are in the planning stages, but certainly not at the level of some of the big oil companies in the area.
In building economies for their communities, these First Nations in the Fort St. John area face similar issues other First Nations in BC are struggling with. These include the ability to raise equity, economic downturn, remoteness, technological advances, seasonal businesses, no economic development plan, of if a plan, a strategy to carry it out, lack of support or understanding from First Nations members, need for education and training to build the workforce through all levels of business, not enough land or resources, lack of a support network, Land Use Planning not done, not enough marketing skills, challenge of working under the Indian Act and other laws, and an issue which is an impediment with many, the issue of overlapping territories and being able to work together on economic development without politics interfering with the viability of a business.
So what can be done to help BC First Nations develop their economies? From a higher level, there are many initiatives happening in the province. There is now this BC First Nations web portal where you can find information, tools, and articles that can assist with Economic development in the communities. Last week I talked about community engagement, and that is an important part of getting members involved in planning for economic development and to be engaged through the development and implementation of businesses in order to keep their support. You can find tools on this website for negotiating Impact Benefit agreements which include ownership, employment and training and environmental standards. There are many sample business plans and business basics as well.
There is a BC First Nations Economic development Action plan on the website, just go to Economic Development and in the search box, type in First Nations Economic development Action Plan and you will find the Plan that was adopted by the Chiefs of BC in February 2008. Under that plan, a Working Group has been established that includes many First Nations organizations and government agencies that are working on implementing the plan and developing tools and mechanisms that will help facilitate First Nations do their own economic development. Any new material that is developed will go immediately on the website for your use.
There are many Councils that were established by the chiefs as well, the First Nations Energy and Mining Council, the Forestry Council, the Fisheries Council that all have elements of assisting First Nations in the economics of those sectors, but there are other sectors that need strategies such as agriculture, aquaculture, technology and manufacturing. Of course there are well establish organizations such as Aboriginal Tourism British Columbia which promotes tourism and the Industry Council of BC which assists in developing relationships with Aboriginal people and business by ICAB. The University of Victoria has also establish a National Chair on Aboriginal Economic Development.
There are many provincial organizations and Councils doing work to help First Nations build their economies but when it comes right down to it, the businesses have to be done by the First Nations or by the First Nations entrepreneurs themselves. The concept of the business needs to be determined, the idea developed, a business plan that includes the financial viability, markets, competitions and market segment, risks, competitive advantage, sales and operating plan, a human resources and financial plan, all the business basics that are necessary must be put in place before starting a business. It is here that we need to focus our energy and find ways to provide the kinds of supports that may be needed.
As people are involved in developing their economies, all the challenges and barriers that I talked about earlier will surface but it is possible to overcome all these issues and have viable businesses. There are many First Nations in this province that have successful businesses. On December 1st, at the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver, the BC Achievement Foundation supported by the New Relationship Trust, will honour Aboriginal Businesses throughout the province for their accomplishments. You can visit their website for details, www.bcachievement.com. It is an inspiring event to attend and witness the businesses aboriginal people are involved in.
There are many challenges to overcome as First Nations build their economies and a better financial future for their members. We can overcome these challenges through First Nation federal and provincial initiatives at the higher level and at home in the communities, by the First nations and members. For too long, most First Nations have been dependent on federal funding which is totally inadequate to meet the needs of our governments and members. We will go on developing all our strengths as First Nations. We have the fastest growing population and Canada and a large workforce that we can continue to train, educate and build our capacity to meet the needs of not only our own economic development, but of the larger business community.
The potential and opportunity is enormous and we must find ways to benefit from these opportunities that are within the values that each First Nation establishes. First Nations have always known that governments listen to and accommodate businesses that play a large part in the economy, and if this is one way to have governments take First Nations seriously, then it is something we can do.