by Xavier Kataquapit
As First Nation people, I know most of us worry about development on our lands by companies in mining, forestry, hydro and other resource sectors. We come by these suspicions honestly, as we have been left out of the loop with all kinds of development on our traditional lands for a more than a hundred years.
When Europeans began to inhabit our lands, our ancestors signed treaties to share the wealth but these deals were never honoured. We instead became wards of the government and we were restricted to small parcels of land. Our culture, traditions and way of life was assaulted by the Europeans but surprisingly somehow we managed to survive.
These days we still operate with a lot of suspicion when anyone wants to come on to our lands and develop our resources. In many cases, First Nation communities and tribal councils get their backs up right away and go into fight mode. That is totally understandable but it probably is not the best way to make sure we get the benefits we want with any developments. On many levels, things have changed substantially with a more progressive and reasonable approach from industry and government in dealing with First Nations. Of course, it helps that the courts have ruled that we must be consulted and recognized by anyone wanting to develop resources on our traditional lands.
My dad advised me that when you are dealing with powerful government and industry wanting to move on to your land, it is best to figure out how to sit down with them. This ensures we have input on protecting our lands, wildlife and waterways and that we get benefits from any initiatives. He believed in fighting for our rights and told me that sometimes the best way forward is not with conflict but through negotiation and leverage.
Recently, Wabun Tribal Council, here in northeastern Ontario, followed through in that traditional wisdom of mutual respect. They made history when they negotiated with the Ontario government on the basis of Resource Revenue Sharing. For the first time in this country, Wabun and 32 First Nations will be provided with 40 percent of the annual mining tax and royalties from existing mines in areas covered by agreements, 45 percent from future mines and 45 percent from forestry stumpage.
Wabun negotiated this deal along with the Mushkegowuk Council and Grand Council Treaty #3 last year with the former Liberal provincial government. The current Ontario government has given the go-ahead and money should start flowing to these First Nations this fall. That is a huge deal. Never in our wildest dreams did we think that something like this could be achieved but there is a reason for this success. It has to do with management and leadership. That boils down to the talent, expertise, vision and tenacity of some very clever First Nation people.
Shawn Batise, former Executive Director of Wabun and his brother Jason Batise who currently holds that position were instrumental in working with the Wabun Chiefs, Councils and their staff to come up with this idea and then to drive it to reality. Both of them grew up in a family that gave them exposure and experience in the Native and non-Native world. Their parents Barney and Doreen made sure they had a modern education and knowledge about their ancestral past.
They were guided by their father, a former Chief of Matachewan First Nation and a founding member of Wabun. They also had the benefit of working in the mining industry early on in their careers which gave them an insight on how these huge operations work. Over the years they acquired skills in research, strategic thinking and planning and negotiation. Twenty years ago nobody here heard of Memorandums of Understanding or Impact and Benefits Agreements but Shawn and Jason were the first Indigenous people I knew of to push forward these strategies. Did they have to stand their ground and fight for the rights of Native people where resource companies were coming onto the traditional lands to explore and develop resource projects? Yes, make no mistake about it, Barney, Jason and Shawn are fighters but they also excelled in negotiating fairness at the meeting table with these industry folk who wanted to move ahead with development. They did it under the vision and guidance of their Chiefs and Elders as well as the input and support of their First Nation members.
Today, the Wabun First Nations are so very different compared to what I experienced more than 20 years ago. Their people are working, taking all kinds of training for employment and starting businesses. Wabun First Nations have health services, educational support, housing developments and ongoing infrastructure being put in place.
Our First Nations are growing stronger and examples such as Wabun are showing the future of what our communities can achieve. It means independence and freedom with the ability to self govern instead of being controlled by the government and ignored by the industry. This is what every First Nation strives for and I am happy to see that it is a path that more of our people are following.