In the polarized ‘environment vs. economy’ debate that we find ourselves in, there is often an assumption, or an assertion, that Indigenous peoples are primarily against resource development. This is manifested in blockades, protests at legislatures and university campuses, and cries from activists that they stand in solidarity with Indigenous people when they stand against mining, oil and gas, commercial fishing, hydro and forestry projects.
For those familiar with the field, this has always come across as a bit puzzling. Resource development is often the most significant economic driver for Indigenous communities, providing their own source revenues for nations and good-paying jobs closer to home. Indigenous businesses are forty times more likely to be involved in the extractive industry than the average Canadian business.
There are absolutely cases where Indigenous nations have had disputes with resource companies, and when their rights have been disrespected. But this is not the same as being against resource development in principle. The public discussion on the issue has failed to grasp that key distinction: Indigenous peoples are not generally opposed to development; they are opposed to not being included, and they are against assuming risks without reaping any of the rewards.
To test that assumption, the Indigenous Resource Network, a platform for Indigenous workers and business owners involved in resource development, commissioned a poll by Environics Research; 549 self-identified First Nations, Metis and Inuit persons living in rural areas or on reserves across Canada were interviewed by telephone between March 25 – April 16. The poll found that a majority, or 65 pr cent, of Indigenous respondents said they supported natural resource development, while only 23 per cent indicated that they were opposed. Asked if a new project were to be proposed near their own community, supporters outweighed opponents 2 to 1 (54 per cent to 26 per cent). Not surprisingly, support was higher for working age (35-54 years) respondents (70 per cent) than their younger cohort (18-34 Years), (56 per cent), while Indigenous men were more likely to oppose resource development (28 per cent) than Indigenous women (19 per cent).
When asked more specifically about types of resource development, majorities supported both mining (59 per cent support vs. 32 per cent oppose) and oil and gas development (53 per cent support vs. 41 per cent oppose). The reasons for such high levels of support are clear: job opportunities from resource and economic development were tied with access to health care as the most urgent priority for respondents, as compared to other issues such as governance, education, traditional activities, and federal transfers.
All of this points to a path forward for earning greater social license for resource development amongst Indigenous peoples in Canada. For many respondents, their support hinges on the costs and benefits they and their communities are likely to receive, as it does for most people. Respondents were more likely to support a project if it used best practices in protecting the environment (79 per cent), and in safety (77 per cent); and if the community received economic benefits such as jobs and business opportunities (77 per cent). Interestingly, community consultation (69 per cent) and consent (62 per cent) were not as important of factors, even though the public discourse tends to focus on them.
Perhaps the most important finding was that Indigenous support for resource development rose with the more knowledgeable a respondent thought they were about the issue. Those who work in the resource industry or who are engaged beyond social media posts have a much better understanding of the processes required to achieve approval, the standards that must be followed, and the reclamation that must occur when a project is complete or decommissioned. For them, engagement in resource development is not about saying yes or no; it is about ensuring projects meet the highest standards possible.
The relationship between the resource sector and Indigenous communities is not perfect. But it is an important one economically and we would be well served by improving it, not severing it. It is past time to push the discussion on Indigenous peoples and resource development beyond polarizing and simplistic slogans. We hope this poll does just that. The majority of Indigenous peoples support resource development when high environmental standards are applied and impactful jobs and economic benefits follow; let’s move the focus to ensuring that happens with every project.
John Desjarlais Jr. is Cree-Métis from Kaministikominahikoskak; general manager of Great Plains Construction, and an advisory board member with the Indigenous Resource Network. Heather Exner-Pirot is a research adviser to the Indigenous Resource Network and a fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute.
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