OTTAWA | March 2, 2012

B.C. First Nations have what China needs

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On Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s most recent trip to China, his main goal was to represent Canada’s economic interests. But aboriginal groups say its interests are often left unheard and unrepresented in international discussions.

“The multiculturalism of Canada should be there,” says Chief Jackie Thomas, one of the six chiefs of the Yinka Dene Alliance, referring to what she considers the lack of diversity at the table during Harper’s February trade visit.

“We’re not just a country of 50-year-old Caucasian men,” she adds. Grand Chief Edward John at a totem pole ceremony, July 2010 in Sichuan.

A lucrative market

But for First Nations, the issue is about more than being present in Canada's international agreements.

China is a growing, lucrative market, and First Nations want to benefit from that.

“China now is in the position where it needs raw materials for its continued economic expansion and Canada has pretty much been anointed as one of the best places in the world to do that, for them to acquire their natural resources,” says Calvin Helin, a B.C. aboriginal author and president of the Native Investment and Trade Association.

Last summer, China overtook the U.S. as the number one market for B.C. lumber.

According to the Asia Pacific Foundation, First Nations in British Columbia hold about 12-million cubic meters of timber. A decade ago, they only held about two million. This is because in the last decade the federal government has made it easier for First Nations to apply for land tenure and gain access to natural resources.

According to a recent report from the foundation, 54 per cent of forestry tenures [in B.C.] held by First Nations were being managed by First Nations themselves rather than by non-First Nations owned forestry companies.

To respond to China’s increasing market demands and the growth of First Nations land tenure, First Nations delegations, some with the help of the provincial government, have gone to China to build relationships with the Chinese government and investors. Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo led the most recent trip last October.

Two months before that expedition, the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council launched the “First Nations and China: Transforming Relationships” strategy, which outlines a proactive approach to push First Nations interests and natural resources to the world's largest country.

“If our land and resources are going to be targeted for export and for investment, we have to be part of the conversation. Our leadership will not tolerate unilateralism on the part of the federal government to go to the international marketplace and sell our lands and resources,” says Dave Porter, council CEO.

The Canadian government backs such missions. A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Trade  says that different groups leading their own trade trips abroad is beneficial because the “interests are more focused.” 

Getting their issues heard

Meeting directly with the Chinese provides the “opportunity for First Nations to represent their interests, their interpretation of their interests directly to Chinese companies rather than have the government mediate for them,” says Heather Kincaide, post-graduate research fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in Vancouver.

This is why Porter says First Nations should have a seat at the table in every Canadian trade mission abroad.

If our land and resources are going to be targeted for export and for investment we have to be part of the conversation.
— Dave Porter

“We are present in every corner of this country and we have real legal interests in the lands and resources,” says Porter.

The other concern is the “duty to consult.” The Supreme Court says that federal and provincial government must consult with First Nations communities if they are aware of a potential Aboriginal right or title to land slated for resource development.

Many First Nations believe that foreign countries or companies are not aware of this requirement, and say they need to make the ruling clear to foreign investors themselves.

Looking beyond the cash

Like any other international relationships, talks with China are about more than just money. Last fall, the delegation presented a totem pole carved in northwest B.C. to commemorate the loss of life in Beichuan, a city hit by the 2008 Sichuan province earthquake that killed nearly 70,000 people.

Helin says he sees similarities between Chinese and indigenous culture. He can relate to some of the Chinese protocols from recognizing authority to dinner customs. Porter agrees.

“The Chinese talk about their culture and history in terms of thousands of years and so do we,” Porter says. “That cultural relationship isn’t something that you can fabricate and/or put a cost on, but that relationship can translate into a closer relationship which would lead to better economic opportunities as well.”

The community

After numerous trips to China, Wayne Drury, CEO of the Coast Tsimshian Resources LP, says Chinese investors want a closer relationship, rather than just him making a few trips every year. In 2009, his company took the big step of opening a trade desk in Beijing.

Drury says sales last year by Coast Tsimshian, fully owned by the Lax Kw’alaams First Nations in northeast B.C., hit almost $50 million. The company now has 200 employees.

He says the company’s main goal is to give back to the community and to provide social and economic opportunities for band members, pointing to a multi-million dollar leisure center recently built in the community.

“We couldn’t have done that on transfer payments from the federal government,” says Drury.

Dave Porter and Qiang Chief at a welcoming dinner in Sichuan in October. 

“For years and years, First Nations have been marginalized out of business and had to fight their way up from their boot straps to get involved in business and here’s a very successful business that is owned by First Nations and they’ve done it all themselves,” he added.

Many First Nations leaders agree that economic sustainability will lead to a better future. And this needs to be done on their terms.

“The point I make about self-reliance, is that if you’re dependent on anybody for your sustenance, the more dependent you are, the less control you have over your life,” says Helin.

Continued expansion would be the next step on the path to self-reliance.

Porter says he thinks B.C. First Nations should reach out to other large economies of the world like Japan, South Korea, India and Brazil.

“Our job now, once we open the door, is to continue these efforts and to expand,” he says.

Addressing human rights

First Nations relations with China go beyond trade agreements. On Feb. 6, the Yinka Dene Alliance sent a letter to President Hu Jintao asking him to bring up human rights with Stephen Harper. The Yinka Dene Alliance is made up of six First Nations chiefs in northern B.C. who oppose Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline.

Chief Jackie Thomas is one of the six chiefs in the alliance. She says she signed the letter because Canada “shouldn’t be pointing fingers.” She says if Harper brings up human rights with the Chinese, then they should bring up the history of First Nations human rights issues in Canada as well. “I want the world to know what’s going on,” says Thomas.

The letter highlights examples of Canada’s human rights record that the alliance wants the president to bring up with Harper:

  • Poor living conditions in Attawapiskat 
  • Missing or murdered Aboriginal women
  • Overrepresentation of Aboriginals in prison
  • The 1995 death of Dudley George and the history of police relationships with Aboriginal people
  • The First Nations opposition to the Enbridge pipeline and other development projects that don’t receive First Nations consent

Thomas says she doesn’t know if the president received her letter or has read it. However, she says this is not the end, just the beginning.

She says she plans to make a trip to China to talk to the government directly about First Nations concerns about the pipeline and Canada’s human rights record.