With natives feeling ignored on key treaty rights, Shawn Atleo, the newly re-elected Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, says the advocacy organization will take the conversation directly to businesses on resource development.
At the same time, he didn't rule out delaying key projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline.
"The chiefs are standing together and saying if you do not deal with the recognition of our title rights, it will not result in more efficient development," he said the day after he was re-elected to a three-year term as national chief of Canada's largest aboriginal organization.
With billions of dollars at stake in projects like the Northern Gateway pipeline and mines in Northern Ontario, Canadian business leaders have urged politicians to give aboriginal communities a larger role in the development of Canada's energy industry.
Resource development is the priority of Mr. Atleo's second term as national chief. Chiefs from across the country are urging him to take a more hard-line approach on the issue, seeing it as their ticket to economic prosperity. It's a priority for Ottawa and the provincial governments, too.
The test for the AFN under Mr. Atleo will be keeping all three parties – chiefs, the federal government and businesses – at the table. He will face a challenge balancing the role of conciliator with Ottawa with the need to stand behind chiefs who want blockades, while simultaneously attracting businesses.
So far, Mr. Atleo has the attention of corporations. Canadian business leaders, in a report by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives released ahead of the AFN's assembly, called for politicians to bring aboriginal communities more fully on board in energy development.
"It feels like we're finally being heard. … That there is a good business reason for businesses to invest in our young people," Mr. Atleo said. "It's important that first nations not simply be an afterthought."
However, the private sector might not be best placed to give first nations equal-partner status and more shared revenue, said Daniel Veniez, an entrepreneur who has worked with first nations in northern B.C. and is a former Liberal Party candidate.
While Mr. Veniez said engaging with businesses is a smart tactic, "in order to unlock the full economic potential, first nations and Ottawa will have to clear the underbrush first … the fundamental issue of treaty rights," he said. "I don't think you'll see any real movement until this is sorted out first."
Northern Gateway is one such example, he argued. Enbridge appointed an aboriginal liaison, but many native communities have rallied against the proposed pipeline. And a deal, which would have seen the Gitxsan community receive an equity stake in the $5.5-billion project and at least $7-million in profit, fell apart just months after it was signed.
In response to Mr. Atleo's re-election, Enbridge spokesman Todd Nogier said in an e-mail that the company "believes fully in the development of corporation-First Nations partnerships for mutual benefit," but refused to elaborate further.
Following the lead of many chiefs who demanded the AFN take a more assertive role, the AFN passed a resolution calling for the eviction of mining companies in Northern Ontario's Ring of Fire.
"We're being bullied by a giant mining company and a desperate province," Chris Moonias, a band councillor from the Neskantaga First Nation, told the assembled chiefs.
Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan said the government will work with communities to "create the conditions for Canada's first nations to achieve the prosperity they seek, benefiting not just them but all Canadians."
"Building on the progress we have made together will require us to have the courage to embrace change … and ask tough questions," he said in a statement.