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The complexity of aboriginal relationships with industry challenge lingering stereotypes

How some governments are accepting black and white, at the same time

Tim Querengesser is senior editor with Alberta Venture. Email Tim

Apr 4, 2014

by Tim Querengesser

To many, oil is black gold. But to some First Nations in Canada, oil is the most effective lubricant that’s available to free up the gears of sovereignty and self-determination. On the face of it, aboriginal governments using oil to push for cultural protection seems somewhat contradictory. But contradictory and complex are the new normal for aboriginal governments in the face of development.

A great example of this was on display this week. Angela Sterritt, a CBC reporter based in Yellowknife of Gitxsan heritage, reported on Fort Chipewyan and its complex relationship with the energy industry, embedded just upstream along the Athabasca River. Throughout these reports, both in print and in a talk-tape interview on CBC’s flagship radio show, The Current, Sterritt details the complexity often missed by less understanding reporters in First Nations communities. Source after source tells Sterritt, essentially, ‘We’re not huge fans of industry, since their activities have damaged our traditional culture.’ And then, in the same breath, they say, ‘Through capitalizing on industry we’re going to strengthen our traditional culture, in a modern sense, and ultimately our sovereignty.’

The complexity in these co-existing viewpoints challenge the black and white tones often used to paint so-called ‘aboriginal issues’ in Canada. They are important to reminders that stereotypes are rarely accurate, and that to understand aboriginal government relationships with industry requires stereotypes to be challenged if not binned completely.

Consider Chief Allan Adam’s comment to Sterritt, when asked about the fact that the First Nation he heads now rejects money from Ottawa. “We refuse to take funding from the federal government because of the laws and everything that comes with it,” Adam said. He then said that this stance was prompted by the First Nation’s disgust with the Harper Conservatives and their omnibus budget in 2012, which changed laws on water protection. But then, your brain realizes, the reason this stance is possible is that the ACFN is capitalizing on the energy industry developing all around it. The complexity is evident: the energy industry is in part funding a nation that is rejecting money from Ottawa, based on its environmental policies. And yet that energy industry is part of the First Nation’s frustrations with environmental regulation in Canada.

It gets more complex. “Our nation is looking at becoming a full sovereign nation in Canada,” Eriel Deranger, a spokesperson for ACFN, told Sterritt. “Yes, we are receiving money from industry, from contracts with them, but we are not in there saying, ‘Dig, drill, baby, drill.’” Later, she added, “We have to consider stepping stones …we have to make the best of situations that are not always ideal.”

Is it possible for a government to be both supportive and critical of an industry? Is it possible for a government to employ the profits from an industry that, at its core, it does not support? In Alberta, the answer seems to be yes. Deranger’s comments echo what James Blackman, CEO of Primco Dene, told Alberta Venture last year. Primco employs more than 800 people and earns the Cold Lake First Nation many, many millions via its close link with the energy industry. Blackman’s take on the situation? “Just because you jump on the wagon doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with what’s going on,” he said. “What it means is that your concern is the well-being and health of your community.”

And so, as Sterritt’s report points out, there is not so much a divide within First Nations communities about industry (though surely those exist, too) as there is both black and white co-existing at the same time.

These are fascinating times.

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