The relationship between Canada’s resource sector and First Nations, Inuit and Métis people throughout this country must evolve to full indigenous inclusion. The resource sector is the foundation of Canada’s economy and has demonstrated leadership in progressive engagement of Indigenous Peoples, but more needs to be done.
I continue to hear from leaders of indigenous communities across Canada that they support resource development – provided that they are treated as partners, their voices are heard, the benefits are shared and environmental stewardship is a core component of project plans and operations.
Dialogue is vital to achieve success. Quite often, both sides find that they foster many shared values and objectives, and once a healthy relationship is established, they can work together to drive toward these common goals.
This foundation is even more important in our country, as the majority of natural resources are found in remote regions of northern Canada. This has created a very real public policy challenge which requires new forms of partnership to overcome.
The challenge is magnified by the low population density of the North. Gaining political voice in federal, provincial and territorial governments is incredibly difficult with only a handful of parliamentarians and legislators representing smaller communities with people scattered across vast tracts of land. Jurisdictional wrangling further exacerbates the issue with Ottawa and the provinces at various times treating responsibility for Indigenous Peoples like a hot potato.
What has been the net result? A lack of direction in vital areas such as infrastructure and education funding in northern Canada, leading to a higher cost of living, less access to the same basic services and necessities as in the south and greater barriers to development and economic activity.
So, when communities and resource companies sit down to discuss new and existing projects moving forward, it should become clear that a shared objective between them is a partnership that works toward addressing this public policy challenge. We must strive to add value and capacity to both indigenous communities and resource companies, while at the same time building a relationship with all levels of the Canadian government to ensure they are both at the table and supportive.
In northern Saskatchewan in the late 1970s, the provincial government established local targets for the uranium industry to meet. These targets were based on engagement with indigenous community leaders who wanted to share in the benefits of development, but also wanted a voice in environmental stewardship.
Since that time, Cameco Corporation has become not only Canada’s largest industrial employer of indigenous people, but a leader in local indigenous business procurement and the first resource company to engage local traditional leaders in environmental monitoring.
Further, in the past year, the company has started to engage the federal and provincial government jointly with chiefs and mayors whose traditional territories we operate in. The success of these trips has highlighted a resource partnership and allowed government to witness communities in support of resource development when partnerships are achieved.
I want to be clear that this model emphasizes a partnership; the company does not fund everything and cannot resolve all the issues facing northern communities. Northerners understand this, as well, and the goal of our joint outreach is to work toward providing the federal and provincial governments with the opportunities and the motivation to become part of this progressive partnership.
Our experience shows that it makes good business sense to work together on shared objectives in the public policy realm such as indigenous education and infrastructure, including community housing, better roads and communication networks.
Investment in education leads to better career opportunities for local residents and thereby increases our ability to hire local people. Communities that are connected to roads have a lower cost of living and are more attractive to outside professionals who are needed to provide health care and other necessary services. Better communication opens up new avenues for educational programming through initiatives such as online and distance learning models.
With the new federal government’s focus on improving living conditions and creating opportunity for Indigenous Peoples, this model shows that communities and companies can become true partners whose mutual wellbeing is indeed closely interwoven.
This is inclusion, and it will lead to healthier communities, a more successful industry and future value for all Canadians.
Sean Willy is the director of corporate responsibility at Cameco Corporation.
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