First nations chief wants bigger role in energy development, generation and transmission

Globe and Mail
November 18, 2008

The power lines that stretch across Northern Ontario, and the ones that will eventually transport much of the additional electricity needed to fuel the province’s growth, all run through the traditional territory of Ontario’s first nations.

Anishinabek Grand Chief John Beaucage sees those vast fields of energy as the key to achieving economic equality for his people.

His plan includes building wind farms to capture the powerful currents that sweep through native territory on the shores of Lake Superior, Lake Huron and elsewhere, many of them considered prime areas for wind capture. He’s also keenly interested in the proposed east-west hydroelectric grid that would connect Ontario to the Conawapa hydro project in Northern Manitoba, and bring possibly billions of dollars worth of power to the province.

Over the past two decades in the U.S. many native bands prospered by building casinos, while Canadian groups, mostly left out of the economy, looked on with envy.

As Mr. Beaucage put it recently: “Energy development, generation and transmission will be our casino.”

Part of Mr. Beaucage’s vision would be to give first nations the power to tax development on their lands.

An economist who spent many years working at Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., Mr. Beaucage is comfortable in the world of business. He is one of a growing number of native leaders who see economic success as a path to sovereignty. Already some first nations in Alberta are being taken on board as partners in gas pipeline construction, and last week chiefs from across Canada signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government on resource extraction in their territories.

Ontario’s first nations will soon present Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty with a proposal that would require that any investment in energy guarantee some form of partnership with native people, and give preference to projects with significant native involvement.

“Years ago, a first nation would be pleased with a 5- or 10-per-cent stake in a project of this type, and usually we didn’t get anything. Today, we seek a controlling interest,” Mr. Beaucage told a roomful of major players in the energy sector at a luncheon held by the Ontario Energy Network in late October. Although he was firm in asserting his vision of aboriginal rights, he did his best to reassure his audience that first nations don’t want to stifle economic development, but rather they want to share in its benefits.

It’s an argument he believes is founded in the power of the treaties.

“When my ancestors signed those treaties 158 years ago, that person did not think they were condemning their descendants to poverty forever after. It was to share in the wealth with the newcomers,” he said. “For first nations there was no concept of land ownership or land surrender.”

One of his most interesting ideas is to create a mechanism for first nations to tax development anywhere on their traditional territories, which typically extend for hundreds of kilometres around a reserve settlement. That could mean that every hydro pole and power line would be subject to some form of duty.

A provision to tax already exists on-reserve, but it isn’t widely used and has never been extended beyond the reserve’s borders. Mr. Beaucage believes it could be a way to promote first nations’ autonomy.

“We do have to look at how we are going to tax organizations, corporations, land users on our territories, and how we can start deriving income to our communities from tax,” he said.

Recent court decisions have consistently reinforced the duty of the Crown and private enterprise to consult and accommodate first nations about development on their lands. Those questions have recently produced long standoffs, such as the mining dispute involving the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation.

Mr. Beaucage said the energy sector is eager to work with, rather than against, natives to get their projects under way.

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“Some of the past wrongs are starting to be righted now, and we want to be part of that,” he said.