There has been an unprecedented level of criticism being laid on Crown governments, more than I’ve seen in a very long time. My reaction to this: It’s about damn time!
Take your Indian Act, your transfer payment agreements, your meager funding allocations, my $4 bucks a year treaty pay and my Status Card… everything… and bury my heart at Wounded Knee.
It is high time that we sever our fiscal and economic dependence on the federal government. Right now, government revenues and transfer payments account for nearly all of the funding going to First Nations governments. As many others have argued before me, this doesn’t make us governments, de facto or otherwise. This makes us merely agencies of the Crown, with ever increasing and burdensome reporting back to our masters.
To truly be self-sufficient and to break the generations-old cycle of dependence, First Nations governments need to act like governments and find new sources of revenue and economic development.
So, the billion dollar question: How do most government’s create revenue? We’ll get to the “T” word a little later.
The Supreme Court of Canada, through a number or recent precedent-setting cases like Haida Nation, Taku River and Mikisew Cree, have not only affirmed First Nation’s rights over our traditional territory, but have enabled a useful set of tools to swing the economic pendulum in our direction. The highest court in the land has held that the Crown has a legal obligation to consult with First Nations on all activities that may impact our rights. If those rights are impacted, there may be a duty to accommodate as well.
Although, the duty falls to the Crown, for the sake of this article, I’ll say that this requirement also falls to resource development companies wishing to make use of the land and resources in our traditional territory.
This really gives First Nations an incredible hammer to negotiate with. Resource development companies, entire industries in fact, are starting to realize, that the only way their development is going to move forward, is through negotiation and agreement with First Nations.
Yet, there are still some companies who have yet to embrace this concept. Unfortunately, their stubborn streak and outdated mindset trumps good business sense. Some companies even seem to favour confrontation and litigation over working with Indians. At the end of the day, to their management and stakeholders, all I can say is “I told you so”.
However, our community strength – our recent uprising and insatiable battle against the madman Harper – has also made us indignant to the role of our own governments, our own economic needs, practicality and common sense.
But that’s the inherent danger in feeding off frustration and anger, isn’t it? We can’t tell the difference between the good guy and the bad guy. We end up tarring everyone with the same brush.
We begin to oppose our own Chief and Councils. We criticize the AFN. We criticize our community leaders for signing transfer payment agreements. We oppose our land claim negotiators for making deals on our behalf. We criticize our Council, economic development and lands staff for taking part in project consultation processes, signing Impact Benefit Agreements or accepting other economic incentives from development. We oppose all big business for earning too much money at the cost of the environment.
We oppose many things just because Joe and Martha, two provinces over, say we need to.
Indeed, we have a responsibility to look after the environment. In fact, for the Anishinaabe, this was a significant part of our original instructions. To speak for the land and to speak for the water. To speak for things in Creation that can not speak for themselves. However, we need to balance our environmental responsibility with our need to establish an economy and feed our families.
We have so many funding needs. Priorities include health, social and education programs. We need to protect our children and our Elders. We need to build and improve community infrastructure. We need new housing and our own housing programs. And it is essential that we bring jobs and opportunity for business.
The answer to establishing our own sources of revenue comes from three broad categories: (1) Resource Development; (2) First Nations-own ventures; (3) the dreaded “T” word… taxation.
Resource Development: Our communities can begin to establish true partnerships and new sources of income through negotiated agreements that support responsible natural resource development. However, we have to be willing and true partners in resource development. Many First Nations have found ways to do this, and are active, rather than passive, partners in development happening in their territories.
First Nations-owned Ventures: Band-owned ventures have significant leverage to obtain contracts for project development in their territory. Say it with me: Supplies and services! Supplies and services!! Opportunity is knocking, folks.
Whether it’s logistics in the Ring of Fire area, or materials suppliers for the oil and gas industry, or simply providing catering to the Mussellwhite mine, First Nations are already looking towards business opportunities to fill their government coffers. There is extra benefit in this approach because contracting and procurement also means jobs.
Taxation: Finally, last (and yes, least from many First Nations perspectives) is taxation. Governments for millennia, all over the world, have levied taxes on income, property, commodities, sales, transactions… everything. You name it, and governments have taxed it.
But First Nations are exempt from tax, right? Well, under the Indian Act, the archaic and paternalistic statute that we love to hate, personal property on-reserve is exempt. Our ancestors have argued, successfully, that we’re exempt from foreign taxation (Canada imposing taxes on Indians).
But it doesn’t prevent us from establishing our own tax regimes to bill resource developers, companies using our rights-of-way through reserve, and even the Crown, to pony up dollars to First Nation’s governments. If you are going to use it, want to work with us, or cross our traditional lands – it’s going to cost you.
My community, Nipissing First Nation, already levies taxes on natural gas pipelines, cable television and telephone utilities crossing the territory. It isn’t a huge winfall, but it is consistent revenue that is independent of federal funding. We need to start acting like governments and expand these types of taxation arrangements across the country.
In Nipissing we all, quite delightfully, pay for services directly provided by our First Nation. $33 a month for water and sanitation and $33 for wastewater treatment. Some of us also pay service fees for our settlement loans, that we actually have to pay back. There is no such thing as free housing in Nipissing. Some of us, actually have to pay a real mortgage to the bank. We also pay late charges on overdue Band accounts. For all intents and purposes, we can call these… t… t.. t… uh, I can’t say it. The “T” word.
Maybe someday we’ll find a way to divert my income taxes and my property taxes paid to the Minister of Finance, to our own First Nations revenue fund.
The reality is, we can no longer depend on government to fund our communities. There just isn’t enough money. There certainly isn’t enough will.
Our communities need to begin using our aboriginal and treaty rights to our economic advantage. We need to strategically use all the tools we have in front of us, including the duty to consult and the United Nations Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
But most imperative of all, we need to make use of skillful negotiation, have strong economic goals and a sophisticated, business acumen. We have to be able to demonstrate that we’re capable and savvy economic partners, not impediments to growth and development.
Our message should be that First Nations are open for business and we want to be active partners in responsible resource development.