As more Indigenous nations strive for economic development and the opportunity to manage the resources on their lands in an environmentally sound manner, discussions of the continued development of Canadian resources & oil and gas begin to be inclusive of Indigenous interests and environmental intentions.
However, to understand Indigenous intentions and rights to manage their natural resources, industry and government need to understand the complex factors that affect the decisions being made by First Nations across Canada as well as understand how a lack of awareness by the government may hamper progress. It seems the key to the survival of the energy industry in Canada, may now rely on an understanding and recognition of First Nations’ history as well as rights.
Poverty to Power
With the mutual interests of the aforementioned groups in mind, that I sat down with Calvin Helin, Indigenous lawyer, energy project proponent, historian, and best-selling author to discuss some of the complex cultural and historical factors that are impacting First Nations reconciliation today that he is researching in his soon to be published book-“The Rise of Indigenous Nations- Poverty to Power”.
Reconciliation starting point- Truth
I was able to read an advance copy of Helin’s book and it is an epic investigation into the historical truths, newly uncovered realities, misdirections, and warped narratives that have formed our 21st-century perceptions of not only Indigenous groups but by extension, our national identity. It is a truly daunting journey tracing back a multitude of misperceptions of the realities of Indigenous culture and nations. Helin begins with an image of the challenge facing Indigenous nations, having one foot in their traditional cultures and the other foot in European Christian civilization- a situation that he points out has caused Indigenous peoples to be drowned by the forces of colonization.
“Those who have one foot in the canoe, and one foot on the shore, are going to fall into the river.” Tuscarora quote
Helin offers the hope that by revealing examples of successfully developed Indigenous nations, the narrative can be improved.
Colonization and Eurocentrism
Helin points out how the trajectories of different societies, that “won the lottery of circumstances” were more influenced by location, environment, availability of domesticable animals, and ecological barriers than by race as was the case with Europe. He questions the Eurocentric slant of popular history that justified the many injustices of European colonialism. Adom Getachew, a political science professor at the University of Chicago and author recently described the nature of Eurocentrism in a New York Times article on Colonization last year.
“European political and economic domination coincided with a Eurocentrism that valorized European civilization as the apex of human achievement. Indigenous cultural traditions and systems of knowledge were denigrated as backward and uncivilized. The colonized were treated as people without history.”
Calvin Helin describes the lasting, intergenerational impact of the Eurocentric narrative succinctly:
“In a supposedly “woke” society, these distortions continue to produce individual and systemic racism, resulting in an ongoing impact on minorities.”
Eurocentric ideologies resulted in generations of Indigenous children being made to feel their cultures and languages were by extension worthless according to Helin. As unmarked graves at residential schools are uncovered in Canada, the truth is emerging that children were also made to feel even their lives were worthless. This is a hard truth but it must be recognized if governments and society are to truly address diversity and inclusion.
Bob Watts, Queen’s University professor and expert in Indigenous policy and negotiations, and former Interim Executive Director of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission applauds Helin’s analysis;
“Helin teaches us important lessons on the history of colonization of the Indigenous peoples in Canada. More importantly, he gives us a glimpse into the extraordinary beauty of Indigenous nations that have long been oppressed by the forces of colonization.”
Wealth Extraction & Economic dependency
Helin explores the colonization of Indigenous peoples and the profound current-day consequences. In his words:
“This was a time focused on taking Indigenous lands and extracting wealth under the guise of justice and the Rule of Law. It drained and diminished the once-formidable power of Indigenous nations, leaving behind ghastly scars of dysfunction and grinding poverty. Indigenous peoples often find themselves socialized into a welfare trap and an economic dependency mindset, undermining their once vibrant entrepreneurial culture”
Helin points out that current-day bureaucracies are archaic and merely reinforce government dependency while “marooning” or isolating Indigenous peoples. He feels the first steps to remedy the situation and retake collective power have to be rooted in an understanding of the process of colonization to regain personal and collective power.
A good part of the book lays out examples of the sophistication and complexity of Indigenous nations that were not addressed in historical records as part of the false narratives of colonization. Helin criticizes many concepts that devalued Indigenous culture referencing current research. For example, he reaffirms the value of oral histories quoting instances where scientific evidence and discoveries validate Indigenous historical accounts. He notes that even in circumstances where Indigenous history was recorded in written texts, it was ignored and even destroyed as was the case of the Mayans, where a library of 27 books and 5,000 artifacts were destroyed- burned by Franciscan monk Diego de Landa. Helin adds that current researchers are just now learning to decode (and therefore appreciate) Indigenous knowledge from many sources of Indigenous writing -Maya glyphs, Aztec codices, Anishinaabe birch bark scrolls, Mi’kmaq hieroglyphic writing, and more.
Helin debunks Eurocentric myth after myth about Indigenous peoples. The idea that they were unsophisticated, unsavvy traders, and more. He quotes recent discoveries of vibrant cities in the Americas, the most notable being Cahokia, near modern-day St Louis -the largest ancient city in the U.S. and Canada which had a population of about 40,000 in 1086 compared to London’s population of 18,000 with archeological evidence indicating it was a sophisticated society with complex social organization and religious/burial practices.
From one misleading stereotype to another
Helin traces 20th-century attempts to identify Indigenous peoples as misleading stereotypes that have morphed from “Bloodthirsty Savages” to the Vanishing Indian to the Noble Savage, the Hollywood Indian, and then the modern Environmental image of the Crying Indian – an advertising construct from the 1970s “Keep America Beautiful” TV commercial with an Italian actor playing the “Indian” who paddles up a river littered with trash and pollution and he is shown with tears running down his cheek. He identifies this stereotype as manipulation by Wall Street advertisers.
Helin decries these stereotypes that continue a false perception of Indigenous people and create more harm as they perpetuate unconscious biases, individual racism, and systemic racism- ie prejudice perpetrated by social and political establishments. He ruefully notes that impacts of racism are most often invisible to those in the dominant culture and can emerge as microaggressions.
One part of the book examines how Indigenous peoples are now facing Eco-Colonialism- attempts by environmental non-government associations (ENGOs) to dictate development within the Indigenous peoples’ territories. Helin details how powerful ENGOs have hijacked the Indigenous rights agenda to further ideological agendas and financial targets that are divorced from the real interests of Indigenous people, creating discord and division within Indigenous communities. He identifies “BIG GREENs” – environmental juggernauts that are heavily funded by foreign interests and are bringing eco-colonialism to Indigenous groups. He cites examples of environmental groups paying cash to Indigenous persons to attend their protests, even paying a premium to Indigenous people who attend “wearing feathers” or other ceremonial apparel. The result, Helin observes, is a shattering of economic opportunity that could have provided much-needed employment and revenue. He calls on Indigenous peoples to take back their voices. As the country faces a newly elected parliament that has demonstrated past sympathy to the messaging of ENGOs and eco-evangelists, this is an important lesson for Indigenous communities and energy business partners alike.
Moving forward- from stereotype to self-determination
Helin identifies that the main problem in Canada is with the Indian Act.
He identifies the Indian Act as a government system that has conditioned people to define themselves according to the federal government. To a certain degree, many indigenous groups don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them Helin says. However, they fall victim to a government system that has too much bureaucracy and wait years for services that are never delivered. The perception is that the best decision is to not decide for many Indigenous groups that remain in limbo.
However, Bob Watts, drawing on his work with Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission urges a clear path forward.
“Reconciliation demands that Canada removes those oppressive forces such as the Indian Act, obsolete land claims processes and underfunding to essential services such as education, clean water and health care. We will all be better for this.”
Helin points out that BC Indigenous groups are governed by the Indian Act, but they have retained title to their lands. He says this is meaning more and more positive things for BC First Nations as they can receive the economic benefits in their territories and that they control business development on reserve. In response, economic development is advancing with optimism over First Nations-led LNG projects like Cedar LNG and the Ksi Lisims LNG project.
In a recent interview with the BOE Report, Eva Clayton, President, of the Nisga’a Nation talked about the Nisga’a’s desire for sustainable economic activity and how they have the freedom to pursue economic and resource development, saying the Ksi Lisims LNG project gives the Nisga’a equity ownership while supporting their efforts for self-determination and environmental stewardship.
“The project will be generating benefits for the entire region- sustainable economic benefits for generations to come…….the total direct and the indirect economic impacts of the project including natural gas development infrastructure and LNG processing facilities are in the range of $55 billion over 30 years.”
This is surely a hopeful image of self-reliance in action- certainly one of the goals of reconciliation.
In another BOE Report interview ,Crystal Smith, Haisla Nation Chief Councillor- Executive & Stakeholder Relations Committee spoke about the Cedar LNG Project, the largest First Nation-owned infrastructure project in Canada that has one of the cleanest environmental profiles in the world.
She described how the Haisla Nation’s decision to advance Indigenous participation & even ownership in Canadian energy development (specifically LNG/Natural gas) was many years in the making. Crystal Smith points out there was discussion and direction with input from different leaders. It was framed as a vision of the Nation’s participation in resource development as a means of economic prosperity and environmental stewardship. She sees the Haisla growing the economic sector of their territory and observed that more and more First Nations are aspiring to progress their ownership equity. She points out that in projects proposed in BC and Alberta, there is discussion of equity participation of First Nations within their economies and their territories, while still reflecting the Nations guiding principles/values.
“It was important for us to find a partner with the same values of environmental protection and community-centred development. Within the Nation, our values around our environmental impacts are key. Specifically, when it comes to the employment piece, we are looking to develop careers for our membership. I think one unique aspect of the project is that since it is First Nations majority-owned, there is a reconciliation that happens between our neighbouring nations and us.”
Smith added a comment about the importance of economic self-determination.
“To have the ability to develop relationships through economic development – that has been something I definitely love to see when it comes to any of the projects that are occurring within our territory and also along the route.”
Certainly to see the successful self-determination of BC indigenous groups that have control over their lands and resources, one can want the same circumstances for all Indigenous groups across Canada. As summarized by Smith,
“There are many unique aspects of the project and what it means to Haisla but also the impact beyond the region and beyond the Canadian border..”
Taking back the narrative
Helin stresses the importance of taking back the Indigenous narrative as an initial step but he advises it will involve a substantial amount of funding. He also says it must involve a deeper awareness on the part of government officials and industry as well as First Nations and Indigenous peoples and he hopes his book is a good introduction to that awareness.
Bob Watts notes that polls show Canadians are supportive of reconciliation but we must go beyond awareness to action.
“Indigenous people aren’t looking for a kinder gentler colonization – they are looking for true power-sharing, true sharing of the fiscal levers and management of resources in this country. Not just “we’re going to amend this or slightly change that”. We’re talking about pretty fundamental change that has to happen.”
“The Rise of Indigenous Nations- Poverty to Power” is one of Helin’s five books on Indigenous culture and issues. He points out that with the level of disinformation and media manipulation of messaging, Indigenous peoples must create their own media messaging to achieve economic success.
“I always hear the stories about the 1800s… when treaties were signed. Why can’t we tell stories about when we signed the great deals from 2018 and made prosperity happen for First Nations? The opportunity is before us. Don’t flounder it.” Chief Allan Adam, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation
Maureen McCall is an energy professional who writes on issues affecting the energy industry.