Why Recognizing Indigenous Rights Is Good For Business


Exclusive Interview with Grand Chief BosumGrand Chief Dr. Abel Bosum, of the Grand Council of the Crees/Cree Nation Government has worked for the Cree Nation focusing on Economic Development since 1978. From 1984-1998, he was Chief of the Ouje-Bougoumou Cree Nation where, after his community’s many forced relocations, he led his people in planning and constructing an innovative new village. Ouje-Bougoumou received international recognition for its community development achievements.

From 1999 to 2017 Grand Chief Bosum was the Crees’ Negotiator for Cree-Québec relations. He led negotiations of a New Relationship Agreement between the Cree Nation and Québec which created a path for reconciliation. This Agreement established new standards for the recognition of Indigenous rights. In 1998, Grand Chief Bosum received Canada’s Aboriginal Achievement Award, and in 2016, an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree from Bishop’s University.

BEC: Some companies worry that if we recognize these rights then Indigenous peoples will use these rights to interfere with development projects and either delay or entirely halt such projects from going ahead. So, why do you think it is good for business to recognize Indigenous rights?

Grand Chief: The idea that Indigenous people want their rights recognized for the sole purpose of creating an obstacle to development is a myth that is perpetuated by those people who do not want to see change of any kind. As the original inhabitants of this land, we have a vested interest in what happens on the land. In many places across Canada our Indigenous peoples still practice the traditional hunting and fishing activities that we have done for centuries. Our relationship to the land is sacred, because we know it is the resources on the land that we rely upon for our survival, and we know instinctively that we must have a respectful relationship with the land.

The assertion of our rights is the way in which we can ensure our futures and ensure the survival of our people and our cultures. The assertion of our rights is about inclusion. Since the arrival of Europeans on this land, we Indigenous peoples have been subjected to colonialism and its consequences. Our treaties have been misinterpreted and often used against us. We have been subjected to efforts to assimilate us, to remove us from our traditional lands, and to take the “Indian” out of us, through for example, the Indian Residential School System.

When we insist that our rights be recognized, it is for the purpose of pointing out and highlighting our exclusion from, among other things, the benefits that our traditional lands can provide. It is about insisting to be included and benefiting from the development taking place on our lands.

It is our experience in northern Quebec that when those rights are recognized, that when we are included in both the development and the governance of our traditional lands, then it is possible to create win-win situations for all those concerned—for industry, for government, and for Indigenous peoples. What we have found is that once industry, whether it is in the field of energy, mining, forestry or tourism, understands that the recognition of Indigenous rights creates a high level of “certainty” regarding the development of proposed projects, then there are significant benefits to companies operating on our traditional land. The rules are clear, the procedures are clear, all parties have a clear role to play, agreements are negotiated which address community concerns, and the potential for projects to be de-railed because of Indigenous claims are minimized, and development can proceed in a much more rational and orderly fashion. And, of course, this is all good for creating a healthy investment climate, and ultimately, it is good for business.

BEC: Can you give some concrete examples of how this has played out in practice?

GC: The traditional territory of the Cree Nation in northern Quebec includes a vast area which has important and economically interesting resources in the energy, mining and forestry sectors. In the early 1970’s, Quebec announced its intention to proceed with the construction of the world’s largest hydroelectric project in the world. Quebec did this without consulting our communities and we only heard about it through the radio. Since this project would flood a very significant portion of our traditional territory where our people actively pursued a traditional way of life, we resisted. We launched court challenges to stop the project, and although unsuccessful, our opposition led the courts to require that the province and the federal governments negotiate a treaty with us. The result was the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975. We had difficult struggles to get both levels of government to respect the Agreement, and we needed to oppose future hydroelectric projects because our rights under that Agreement were not being respected.

In their totality, all these agreements confirm that nothing can happen within our traditional territory without our involvement and without our communities benefiting from any development on our traditional territory. We have also rewritten the way in which governance of our territory takes place. Our communities have significant jurisdiction over large parts of our traditional territory, while at the same time, we have established a unique regional government involving our Cree communities and the non-Indigenous communities of the region.

As you know, northern Quebec, similarly to many parts of northern Canada, is an important focus of the mining industry. There are rich deposits of a wide range of industrial and commercial minerals which can be exploited and yield very significant economic returns. On the basis of our rights being recognized and confirmed, we established a “Cree Mining Policy” which lays out the procedures which a mining proponent must follow in order to obtain our permission, and eventually formal provincial authorization, for the project to proceed. This policy has led to our concluding a number of agreements which we refer to as “Impacts and Benefits Agreements” involving our respective communities, our Cree Nation Government and the project proponents.

In these cases, once the rules are clear, there has been not only willingness, but also appreciation, on the part of mining companies for the clarity of the process and the resulting partnerships with our communities. All of our IBA’s have resulted in win-win situations, and we believe that this is the way of the future.

BEC: If, as you suggest, there can be win-win situations as a result of recognizing Indigenous rights, why do you think this has not been done before by Governments?

GC: I have been encouraged by the direction that the current Federal government has taken with respect to a number of sea-change initiatives that could really make a difference. I am particularly encouraged that this government has agreed to a parliamentary bill tabled before Parliament by Cree M.P. Romeo Saganash which will result in the full implementation on the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

BEC: What have been some of the positive benefits for the Indigenous communities in your region?

GC: As a consequence of our initial Treaty, the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, together with subsequent major agreements intended to implement the Treaty, and with the various IBA’s and other agreements with respect to the development of our territory, we have gone quite a long way in implementing the major recommendations of the “Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples”, as well as key objectives of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples.

We have vastly improved the living conditions in our communities particularly with respect to basic community infrastructure such as water and sewer systems, although adequate housing stock remains a major concern. There has been a significant improvement in the standard of living in all our Cree communities with respect to employment and incomes levels. We have secured an acknowledgment that any resource development within the traditional territory must involve the Cree community. We have successfully negotiated a revenue-sharing arrangement based on the value of resources extracted from Cree traditional territory. There has been a major transfer of funding by the federal government to the Cree Nation Government to fulfill previously federal obligations. We have secured Cree control over health and social services as well as Cree control over education. We have negotiated an enhanced governance regime with respect to the entire Cree traditional territory with important land use and planning powers held by the Cree First Nations and similar powers held by a unique regional government comprised of representatives of both Cree and non-Indigenous communities. And, along the way, we have developed explicit Nation-to-Nation relationship in all major agreements with both Quebec and Canada, and we have negotiated the elimination of the Indian Act and replaced it with new self-government legislation in which local governments are not accountable to the Minister of Indian Affairs, but to the Cree Nation Government. Our communities are, by and large, in a much better state than most First Nations communities across the country.

BEC: How, in your region of northern Quebec, have you been able to secure a recognition of Indigenous rights?

GC: Securing that recognition of both our Indigenous rights and our specifically Cree rights has not been easy. It has taken us over four decades to get where we are today. It has taken difficult struggles which we waged in the courts, in the court of public opinion and on the ground. Throughout all this time we have remained committed to the belief that our rights are central and foundational to who we are as Indigenous people, and keeping that focus has been the key to our successes. And we know that we must always remain vigilant and alert to any efforts to erode or minimize our rights as we continue into the future. Our rights have been central to our past and they will remain central for us into the future.

BEC: How do you think that your successful experiences in northern Quebec can be replicated throughout the country?

GC: Every region of the country, of course, has its own set of particular circumstances, and the ways in which the recognition of Indigenous rights will be translated into concrete benefits for Indigenous communities will perhaps look a bit different from location to location. But the essence of our experiences in northern Quebec can be replicated elsewhere. Indigenous rights are real and they can be expressed in tangible ways that will improve the lives of our people in their communities, while at the same time, creating a spirit and an atmosphere of harmony, all of which far outweighs the costs of doing nothing.

What we have done in northern Quebec is to find that right mix of Indigenous rights, governance and development which has proven to lead to a significant lessening of adversarial confrontations in the context of development projects, to an increased partnerships and harmony in our region, to an improvement in the lives of our people, and to much better relations with governments.

BEC: What advice would you offer to both Governments and Indigenous communities?

GC: To governments, I would say that Canadians, largely as a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Report, are ready for a new paradigm in their relationship with Indigenous peoples. They have finally begun, through many civil society forums, to have the kinds of dialogues with Indigenous peoples that would lead to support for a radically new way of relating to our First Nations and other Indigenous communities. Prime Minister Trudeau and a number of his cabinet ministers have shown a very good understanding of the kinds of changes that need to occur. And, as I mentioned, the full implementation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is an excellent starting point. The Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission also highlighted that the Declaration provides an excellent framework for reconciliation.
What we have demonstrated in our corner of northern Quebec is that it is possible to recognize and give practical expression to Indigenous rights without the sky falling and without governments “giving away the farm”. What we have shown, in fact, is that such an approach is, in the end, in everyone’s best interests.

To Indigenous communities I would say that this is the time to be alert to opportunities and to seize them when they appear. On the Indigenous side, I think we also sometimes need to let go of fears. We have become used to resisting, used to calling out the hidden agendas, used to mistrust, and used to government initiatives that come from a colonial agenda. There may be a time soon when we need to look beyond those blinders and see the possibilities in opportunities. We need to be ready to say ‘yes’. But by saying ‘yes’, it doesn’t mean that we shut off our brains or that we stop looking at proposals with a critical eye. It means, on the Indigenous side, that we have to be ready to go beyond our own rhetoric and be ready to create something new when the opportunities present themselves.