Two of Canada's biggest resources companies have endorsed a call for governments and industry to clearly assert the right of aboriginal communities to veto major projects that negatively affect their traditional territories.
Suncor Energy Inc. and Tembec Inc. are members of the Boreal Leadership Council that is releasing a report Monday calling for the adoption of the principle of "free, prior and informed consent" when industry is working with indigenous populations. The council is composed of businesses – including Toronto Dominion Bank – environmental groups and First Nations that work together on northern issues.
Aboriginal communities have frequently reaped benefits in agreements with resources companies over development projects, but often complain they are not treated as full partners and have little real power over the fate of projects. In recent years, Canadian courts have made clear that these communities need to be consulted and their concerns accommodated, and that where they have clear title to land, their consent must be given.
But the Harper government has not accepted the standard – contained in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – that would acknowledge the right of aboriginal communities to provide their informed consent prior to a project being approved. Several First Nations have launched legal challenges to specific projects, including the government's conditional approval of Enbridge Inc.'s Northern Gateway project.
While some industry executives worry about arming aboriginal leaders with veto power, the boreal council concluded that adopting such a standard of consent would facilitate partnerships rather than serve as a barrier to development. However, all levels of government, industry and the aboriginal leaders themselves must ensure the communities have the capacity to engage as full partners, it said.
"We are supporting free, prior and informed consent as a way to address many of the resource challenges," council member Robert Walker – who is vice-president at NEI Investments ethical funds – said in an interview. "It's not just an issue of access to resources and getting business done; it's also for us a social justice issue. That certainly is the position of the [boreal council]."
Montreal-based forestry company Tembec has concluded a number of forest management agreements with Cree, Algonquin and Ojibwa communities in Ontario and Quebec, but company manager Chris McDonnell said more work needs to be done to ensure the concept of free, prior and informed consent is fully realized.
"As we're engaging with them in the development of forest management plans … we're able to take a more flexible approach to adapting our operations to their interest and use of the land," he said. However, bands may reject a forestry plan that involves a site of special significance, and the company must be prepared to accept that decision.
While Suncor is part of the council and endorsed its report, its representative on the council, Peter MacConnachie, dodged a specific question on the UN standard of consent.
"We support the research the Boreal Leadership Council is doing and welcome the opportunity to learn more about what [free, prior and informed consent] means to aboriginal communities," he said in an e-mailed statement. "What's important to Suncor is that we continue to have strong, mutually beneficial long-term relationships with First Nations."
Alberta's New Democratic Party government is promising to adopt the standard as it looks to repair relations with the province's aboriginal communities and ensure they benefit from resource development. Premier Rachel Notley sent a letter to ministers in the summer, urging them to find ways to incorporate the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into the work of their ministries.
"I expect the most challenging part of the discussion will be related to land and resources," she wrote.