Pics News

Exploring the rise of ‘economic reconciliation’ in Canada | CBC News


As the luminaries of the Indigenous finance world met for a luncheon on “economic reconciliation” last month, they found themselves seated in a building honouring a man who helped ensure their peoples’ exclusion from the Canadian economy for more than a century.

Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, now lends his name to a former bank building across from Parliament Hill, an imposing granite and limestone structure with marble-panelled walls, ornate stone carvings and bronze banisters.

For many gathered there, it represented precisely the sort of wealth they say Indigenous lands have yielded Canada, but which the country’s early leaders guaranteed Indigenous peoples wouldn’t see.

Former Wall Street investment professional Bill Lomax, of the Gitxsan Nation in northern B.C., pointed it out. Taking the stage in the building’s cavernous main hall, he explained the Bank of Montreal occupied it until 2005. That’s when federal officials booted the bank, later renaming it and occupying it themselves.

A view of a government building from the street.
The Sir John A. Macdonald building in Ottawa in 2015. The 1930s-era building on Wellington Street was formerly occupied by the Bank of Montreal. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

“Given that whole situation,” Lomax said, “I think it’s entirely appropriate that this building is named after Sir John A. Macdonald.”

The event, dubbed “advancing economic reconciliation on Parliament Hill,” was hosted by two senators on June 14.

The phrase should sound familiar, for the promise of economic reconciliation is becoming common among governments, political parties, corporations and banks.

The 2023 federal Liberal budget pledged $65 million toward “advancing economic reconciliation by unlocking the potential of First Nations lands.” The Conservative Party vowed to “advance economic reconciliation with First Nations” in its 2021 election platform.

Canada’s central bank pledged to support economic reconciliation last year. The Canadian Chamber of Commerce assured the public of its commitment to economic reconciliation in 2021.

CBC News visited the luncheon to learn more about the new buzzword, where it became clear that, despite consensus that economic reconciliation is good, consensus on what it actually is, is harder to find. 

A ‘co-opted’ term

“Economic reconciliation is a term that’s kind of been co-opted by everybody to mean everything,” said Shannin Metatawabin, CEO of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association (NACCA), who attended the event.

“But the way I try to think of reconciliation, without getting lost in it, is a reclamation of the Indigenous economy.”

Having previously worked as a development officer providing loans, Metatawabin recalled the days in the 1980s when First Nations-owned businesses were rare and banks balked at on-reserve lending.

But now, Metatawabin said as the guests dug into their meal of chicken breast with mushroom sauce, things are different. Indigenous-controlled lenders and development agencies proliferate, while First Nations have racked up an impressive string of court victories, he said.

A man in a suit beside a statue.
Shannin Metatawabin, CEO of the National Aboriginal Capital Corporations Association, inside the Senate of Canada on June 14, beside the bust of James Gladstone, appointed in 1958 as the first Indigenous senator. (Brett Forester/CBC)

“We’ve been excluded with policies, legislation and the systemic discrimination within the country,” he said.

“We’re trying to reclaim what we had lost.”

Another guest, Dawn Madahbee Leach, chair of the National Indigenous Economic Development Board, offered a similar take.

“Having a say in what goes on in our traditional territories is the number one, I think, part of economic reconciliation,” she said.

The genesis of economic reconciliation

But there is a wide range of views on what that could look like.

Some see economic reconciliation as achievable with the tools at hand: impact and benefit agreements, ownership stakes and participation in the mainstream. Others define it as co-jurisdiction with Crown governments.

Still others believe economic reconciliation requires restitution to Indigenous peoples of their ancestral birthright — sovereignty over economic development in their territories.

Asked for his roadmap, Sen. Marty Klyne, a member of Little Black Bear’s Band in Saskatchewan and co-host of the event, pointed to two things.

“The genesis would be on one side the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and then on the other side you’ve got the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he said.

A man in a suit underneath the Saskatchewan crest.
Progressive Sen. Marty Klyne of Saskatchewan inside the Senate of Canada on June 14, 2023. (Brett Forester/CBC)

The UN declaration references economic rights several times, while the TRC’s Call to Action 92 urges the corporate world to adopt the UN declaration as “a reconciliation framework.” 

But neither actually uses the phrase “economic reconciliation.” A review of Canada’s major dailies suggests the term gained use roughly 10 years ago, following the Supreme Court of Canada’s landmark 2014 Tsilhqot’in decision.

In that ruling, the Tsilhqot’in became the first Indigenous nation to secure a Canadian court declaration of Aboriginal title over its territory. The Globe and Mail reported on it with the headline, “Supreme Court ruling on native land claims adds to uncertainty for pipelines.”

The paper also cited Business Council of British Columbia president Greg D’Avignon with a proposed solution: “The government of British Columbia has a significant number of economic reconciliation tools, including revenue sharing.”

Economic reconciliation today

Nine years later, it remains to be seen whether economic reconciliation is just another political promise that’s cheap to make, easy to break, or something more.

Promising First Nations economic reconciliation without promising control over land at least equal in authority to Crown governments is “very much like saying ‘We’re going to pay our slaves better,'” said Indigenous rights lawyer Kate Kempton.

Kempton, with law firm Woodward and Company, represents a coalition of Treaty 9 First Nations challenging the provincial-federal mining agenda in northern Ontario, particularly in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire region.

She said what’s presented today as economic reconciliation is just “Band-Aiding over a broken body” unless it recognizes First Nations’ full decision-making authority over treaty lands.

“In that sense, it’s meaningless. It’s worse than meaningless,” she said.

“It’s misdirecting and propaganda.”

WATCH | Treaty 9 chiefs launch lawsuit:

Treaty 9 First Nations leaders say their message is clear, no development without us as partners

Chiefs from 10 communities in the region launch lawsuit, arguing Crown can’t make unilateral land decisions. They are ramping up political pressure on the provincial and federal governments, warning Wednesday that the only way mining projects can proceed in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire is with their participation as full partners.

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, also known as K.I. or Big Trout Lake, about 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., is one of the First Nations pressing the fight.

The community is sovereignty-minded, said Chief Donny Morris. He asked what it is that differentiates First Nations from other colonized peoples who have gained back their autonomy.

“What’s to prevent us Natives in Canada from doing that same concept? One day it could happen,” he said.

“That’s why economic reconciliation should be looked at as a full partnership, not just where one party benefits.”

K.I. and likeminded First Nations aren’t coming to Ottawa to advocate quietly over lunch, either. They recently held a rally outside Queen’s Park, the seat of Ontario’s legislature in Toronto, to confront Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government. 

A man seated at his desk.
Donny Morris is the chief of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug. (YouTube)

It’s a different strategy altogether, and one K.I. knows well. Morris and other K.I. members were jailed in 2008 after the community blocked mineral exploration company Platinex from accessing their traditional territory.

Amid the standoff, Platinex sued K.I. for $10 billion. The First Nation sued back, demanding $10 million and an injunction against the firm.

Morris acknowledged that this situation — blockades, injunctions and multibillion-dollar lawsuits — is not economic reconciliation. It took much stress, time and humiliation to put it aside, he said, vowing to ensure it doesn’t happen again.

While his door is open to talks, he said he feels governments are stuck in their policy, unable or unwilling to change. Rather than wait for the Crown to deliver economic reconciliation, First Nations head to court to demand it.

“We’re not doing this out of greed. We’re not doing this out of anger. We’re just trying to correct something that was done in the past,” Morris said.

“In the past, we were harmed, we were lied to and a lot of stuff was stolen from us. We just want it all back.”


Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button