I don’t spend a lot of time writing about my professional career, other than the occasional article meant to generate some new business. Current events, coupled with a deliberate and ongoing attempt to misrepresent Phil Fontaine and Ishkonigan Inc. and our role in natural resources projects has motivated me to write this little piece.
You see, I too, work for Ishkonigan. We are a First Nations-owned and operated consulting firm that specializes in negotiation, mediation and relationship-building between indigenous communities, government and the natural resources industry. We are also a knowledgeable and caring group of professionals, mainly First Nations and Métis, who believe in our work and how it contributes to our communities.
Our absolute primary purpose is to work to ensure First Nations are brought to the table in natural resource projects. We strive to ensure that project proponents listen to the views of our people and to ensure that all issues and concerns are heard and understood. We also provide the ways and means to facilitate a meaningful dialogue, always based on trust and respect.
Ishkonigan is trying to create a culture of understanding in boardrooms across the country. So when it comes time that First Nations absolutely need to be heard, a meaningful dialogue can take place. That’s really where reconciliation starts – through dialogue.
If this wasn’t the case, believe me, I wouldn’t be doing it. I’m Anishinaabe through-and-through. Nothing is more important to me than the prospering and well-being of our people, our families, our communities and our Nation.
Phil Fontaine has worked his entire career on these objectives. Whether it was obtaining the historic apology from Canada and negotiating reparations for residential school survivors; taking an entire country towards a path to reconciliation; or entrenching the rights-based agenda in establishing the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; Phil has been there, leading it all. Always with dignity, integrity, conviction and humility.
Phil has been on front-lines on so many issues. Remember the National Day of Action? Making Poverty History? The Kelowna Accord?
How about the Human Rights complaint against the federal government over adequate funding to First Nations students and on-reserve schools? That was Cindy Blackstock and Phil Fontaine. Both national heroes as far as I’m concerned.
Yet there are still some people asking why on Mother Earth would Phil Fontaine do an about-face against his own people? Occum’s tells us that the simplest solution is likely the answer. My thesis is this: Phil Fontaine continues to be the most dedicated and caring advocate for First Nations people in Canada. He hasn’t changed his values and motivation in this respect whatsoever.
I hypothesize that Phil Fontaine and Ishkonigan’s role is being misrepresented by a certain few who have pre-determined motives: (1) Either they have never been Phil supporters; and/or (2) they are motivated to deliberately misrepresent Phil’s motives to move their specific agenda forward.
I can understand the first point. I don’t expect everyone to be a supporter of Phil. Perhaps they didn’t like his pragmatic approach in working with government and industry. Despite his success and results that he’s achieved over his career, many people would rather be pounding their fist on the table and marching through the front-door of Centre Block. Others, which include the less-healthy, simply don’t like to see our own First Nations people succeed. They’ll attempt to drag you down like crabs in a bucket.
The second point is just plain wrong. We shouldn’t be fighting amongst ourselves. I’ve said this again and again – no matter what your issue is, environment or otherwise, the most effective strategy you can employ is to set clear and measurable goals, focus your efforts on addressing the real issues and targeting your real opponents. Fighting the messenger, who might very well be fighting for you, is counterintuitive.
I’d like to establish some facts.
- Ishkonigan is an Aboriginal firm that is on the forefront of consultation and accommodation policy for some of the most important natural resources projects in Canadian history.
- Ishkonigan is not only led by former National Chief Phil Fontaine, we are advised by a diverse Council of Elders in all matters including traditional and spiritual guidance, the environment and our work with industry.
- First Nations have been calling for adequate consultation on all natural resources projects for well over a decade. It only started ramping up with the Supreme Court decisions of Haida Nation, Taku River and Mikisew Cree.
- The Supreme Court has also said that if there are any impacts to Aboriginal and Treaty Rights, or concerns within projects that cannot be addressed or mitigated, that there must be accommodation.
- These days, First Nations expect that consultation and accommodation be negotiated in the form of agreements. These range from engagement & capacity funding agreements for consultation; or impact benefit agreements or project agreements for accommodation.
- Ishkonigan feels that First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities need to be heard, not only in their views and concerns on specific projects, but in actual representation and decision-making. First Nations need a seat at the table, especially on controversial and environmentally-significant projects. Most, if not all, First Nations agree.
- When a First Nation signs an agreement with respect to consultation or accommodation, it doesn’t necessarily mean they support or consent to the project. Believe me when I say this: consent is the next battleground in the spectrum of Aboriginal and Treaty Rights.
- We all hold the environment near and dear to our hearts. This isn’t just a single issue, it’s a wide spectrum of issues. For the Anishinaabe, to be an advocate for the environment is much more than hugging a tree, marching in protests or supporting a cause. It’s about Spirit and honoring our traditional obligations to be stewards of the land. It’s about acknowledging and supporting the leadership of our women and addressing our unanimous concern over clean water.
- With respect to the environment, some Anishinaabe are warriors with a sword while others are warriors with a pen. In other words, there is more that one way to advocate for the environment. Some of us choose to march on Parliament Hill and round dance in shopping malls – while some of us choose to share these important community perspectives in the boardroom in an attempt to facilitate transformative change within industry. In our role with industry, we’re working to establish a new way of doing business with First Nations people.
- Ishkonigan’s role is to not only document and provide these essential concerns to project proponents – our work is to ensure that these are understood and are responded to.
- Phil has said: “One thing is very clear, I can’t think of a single First Nations community that would engage in any development that would compromise the earth, the environment, the water.”
- Yes, we are hired by project proponents including big energy companies. But we are also hired by First Nations communities to represent their interests as well.
- It’s true that some communities choose to support such projects for various reasons. They may have an overwhelming need for jobs and economic benefit. They may need some revenue and capacity building within their community. We all don’t have to agree with this but it is their right. If First Nations have the right to say “No” – they certainly have the right to say “Yes”. Ishkonigan, with leadership from Phil Fontaine, are not judgmental on what reasons First Nations may have, for or against, a certain project. What is important is that we listen to those reasons.
- We will listen, document and bring forward concerns no matter if you are for a project or against a project. Even for those who have very strong environmental viewpoints, we will go to bat for you. We shall not limit ourselves to the perspectives of our clients or project proponents. In fact, I feel it is much more important that we share the perspectives of First Nation communities, especially if they are opposed to any given project.
- It is important that First Nations know the risk and impacts that these projects may have on the health of their people, their traditional territory, their territorial interests, the natural environment, the water, and on their traditional harvesting rights.
- It is absolutely vital that the First Nation communicate their positions and impacts to the proponent, to the regulator, and to government, in order to provide the community leadership with the information they need to make an informed decision about project participation and project agreements.
With all that being said, the internet and social media is full of so much conjecture. Individuals are constantly pitching this perspective and that perspective. They absolutely have a right to their viewpoints. I for one, respect those viewpoints, whether I agree with them or not.
But to misrepresent the facts or the motivations and integrity of individuals is out of line. Phil Fontaine has never, and will never speak ill of anyone or misrepresent anyone in such a malicious way. Nor will he compromise a lifetime of dedicated service to First Nations and our people. As my friend and mentor Dave Dale once said to me, we may have a different set of eyes but it’s still the same view.
I can vouch for the man, as my employer, my confidant and my kin – Phil Fontaine has, and will always be, one of the kindest, generous and most loyal person I have ever worked with. He will never compromise the values and views of First Nations people.
That isn’t an opinion – that is a statement of fact.