When the luminaries of the indigenous financial world gathered for a luncheon on “economic reconciliation” last month, they found themselves seated in a building honoring a man who helped ensure the exclusion of his peoples from the Canadian economy for more than a year. century.
Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister, now lends his name to a former bank building facing Parliament Hill, an imposing granite and limestone structure with marble-lined walls, ornate stone carvings, and bronze railings.
For many gathered there, it represented precisely the kind of wealth that indigenous lands are said to have produced in Canada, but which the country’s early leaders guaranteed indigenous peoples would not see.
It was pointed out by former Wall Street investment professional Bill Lomax of the Gitxsan Nation in northern BC. Taking the stage in the building’s cavernous main hall, he explained that the Bank of Montreal occupied it until 2005. That’s when federal officials kicked the benchthen renaming it and occupying it themselves.
“Given the whole situation,” Lomax said, “I think it’s entirely appropriate that this building should be named after Sir John A. Macdonald.”
The event, dubbed “Economic Reconciliation Advance on Parliament Hill,” was hosted by two senators on June 14.
The phrase should sound familiar, as the promise of economic reconciliation is becoming common among governments, political parties, corporations, and banks.
He 2023 Federal Liberal Budget pledged $65 million to “promote economic reconciliation by unlocking the potential of First Nations lands.” The Conservative Party promised to “advance economic reconciliation with First Nations” in its electoral platform 2021.
Breaking: visited the luncheon to learn more about the new buzzword, where it became clear that despite the consensus that economic reconciliation is good, consensus on what it really is is harder to find.
A ‘co-opted’ term
“Economic reconciliation is a term that has been co-opted by everyone to mean everything,” said Shannin Metatawabin, executive director of the National Association of Aboriginal Capital Corporations (NACCA), who attended the event.
“But the way I try to think about reconciliation, without getting lost in it, is a recovery of the indigenous economy.”
Having previously worked as a development officer making loans, Metatawabin recalled the days in the 1980s when First Nations-owned businesses were rare and banks were resistant to lending on the reserve.
But now, Metatawabin said as guests devoured their meal of chicken breast with mushroom sauce, things are different. Indigenous-controlled lenders and development agencies proliferate, while First Nations have racked up an impressive string of court victories, he said.
“We have been left out with the policies, the legislation and the systemic discrimination within the country,” he said.
“We are trying to recover what we had lost.”
Another guest, Dawn Madahbee Leach, president of the National Indian Economic Development Board, offered a similar take.
“I think having a say in what happens in our traditional territories is the number one part of economic reconciliation,” he said.
The genesis of economic reconciliation
But there’s a wide range of views on what that might look like.
Some see economic reconciliation as achievable with the tools available: impact and benefit agreements, ownership stakes, and mainstream participation. Others define it as co-jurisdiction with the Crown governments.
Others believe that economic reconciliation requires the restitution to indigenous peoples of their ancestral birthright: sovereignty over economic development in their territories.
When asked about his roadmap, Sen. Marty Klyne, a member of the Little Black Bear’s Band in Saskatchewan and a co-host of the event, made two things clear.
“The genesis would be, on the one hand, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and, on the other hand, there is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he said.
The UN statement makes reference to economic rights several times, while the TRC’s Call to Action 92 urges the business world to adopt the UN statement as “a framework for reconciliation.”
But no one actually uses the phrase “economic reconciliation.” A review of Canada’s major dailies suggests that the term gained usage about 10 years ago, following the landmark Supreme Court of Canada Tsilhqot’in decision of 2014.
In that ruling, the Tsilhqot’in became the first indigenous nation to obtain a Canadian judicial declaration of aboriginal title to their territory. The Globe and Mail reported on it with the headline: “Supreme Court ruling on native land claims raises uncertainty over pipelines.”
The document also quoted British Columbia Business Council Chairman Greg D’Avignon with a proposed solution: “The British Columbia government has a significant number of economic reconciliation tools, including revenue sharing.”
Economic reconciliation today
Nine years later, it remains to be seen if economic reconciliation is just another political promise that is cheap to make, easy to break, or something else.
Promising First Nations economic reconciliation without promising control over land at least equal in authority to Crown governments is “a lot like saying ‘We’re going to pay our slaves better,'” said indigenous rights lawyer Kate Kempton.
Kempton, with the law firm Woodward and Company, represents a coalition of Treaty 9 First Nations challenging the provincial-federal mining agenda in northern Ontario, particularly in the mineral-rich region of the Ring of Fire.
She said what is presented today as economic reconciliation is just “a Band-Aid on a broken body” unless it acknowledges the full decision-making authority of First Nations over treaty lands.
“In that sense, it doesn’t make sense. It’s worse than not making sense,” he said.
“It’s misdirection and propaganda.”
Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, also known as KI or Big Trout Lake, about 600 kilometers north of Thunder Bay, Ontario, is one of the First Nations pressing the fight.
The community is sovereignty-minded, Chief Donny Morris said. He asked what makes First Nations different from other colonized peoples who have regained their autonomy.
“What’s stopping us native Canadians from doing that very concept? One day it could happen,” he said.
“That’s why economic reconciliation should be seen as a full partnership, not just where one party benefits.”
KI and like-minded First Nations will also not be coming to Ottawa for silent advocacy over lunch. They recently held a rally outside Queen’s Park, the seat of the Ontario legislature in Toronto, to confront the Progressive Conservative government of Prime Minister Doug Ford.
It’s a completely different strategy, and KI knows it well. Morris and other KI members were jailed in 2008 after the community blocked mining exploration company Platinex from accessing their traditional territory.
In the midst of the standoff, Platinex sued KI for $10 billion. The First Nation returned the lawsuit, demanding $10 million and an injunction against the company.
Morris acknowledged that this situation—blockades, injunctions, and multimillion-dollar lawsuits—is not an economic reconciliation. It took a lot of stress, time and humiliation to put it down, he said, vowing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
While his door is open to talks, he said he feels governments are stuck in their policy, unable or unwilling to change. Rather than wait for the Crown to deliver economic reconciliation, First Nations are turning to the courts to demand it.
“We are not doing this out of greed. We are not doing it out of anger. We’re just trying to correct something that was done in the past,” Morris said.
“In the past, we’ve been hurt, lied to, and stolen a lot of things. We just want everything back.”