MT+Co. and First Nations Equity Ownership at the Indigenous Opportunities Forum

I had the opportunity to attend the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade Indigenous Opportunities Forum last Friday at the Fairmont Hotel. After a beautiful welcome to the territory by Chief Leah George-Wilson of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (and lawyer at MT+Co.), Tamara Napoleon, Principal at MT+Co. and Co-leader of the Indigenous Law Group, moderated a panel on Leveraging Ownership. The panel included Niilo Edwards of the First Nations Major Project Coalition, Shane Gottfriedson of Project Reconciliation, and Yuho Okada of Barkley Project Group. Speaking to a room that included Indigenous entrepreneurs, industry proponents, NGO leaders, and First Nations leadership from all over BC, Tamara spoke clearly about the importance of equity ownership for First Nations in project development on their territories. She pointed out that the courts have stated that Aboriginal rights have an “inescapable economic component”, and that economic reconciliation means not only making sure that First Nations have a strong share in projects, but that projects are not violating Indigenous legal orders.

This set the stage for an animated discussion that included audience questions about requiring Indigenous environmental and socio-economic assessment as a precondition to equity investment; Indigenous law; agreement-building within communities and Nations; and, the relationship between hereditary and elected governance structures. In response to the latter question, Tamara raised a central question that governments of all kinds are grappling with: who is the proper rights holder/who should make the decision on whether to invest? She emphasized that answering this question needs to respect the diverse bodies of Indigenous law in BC. Panel members commented that the era of “divide and conquer” strategies on the part of the Crown and industry is coming to a close as Nations rebuild their identities, economies, and legal orders to become major stakeholders in development. Yuho Okada, describing Barkley’s relationship with the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation as majority owners of the Canoe Creek Hydro Project, recalled that understanding the Tla-o-qui-aht governance and legal structure was a challenge, as it is complex and is not written down. However, he stated how essential it was to listen and follow how the Tla-o-qui-aht wanted the project to unfold according to their own law, calling it a “subtle” but important skill. Tamara summarized that Nations are at various stages of internal reconciliation and that industry needs to respect and support these processes of rebuilding.

Tamara also drew the room’s attention to the recent release of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls National Inquiry Final Report, which includes calls directed at industry for systemic socioeconomic change. She posed the question: Is First Nations-led environmental as well as socioeconomic assessment of projects a pre-condition to equity investment? The panel’s response was a resounding: yes. However, perhaps the most meaningful response to this question came later in the morning, when Crystal Smith, elected Chief Councillor of Haisla Nation, spoke to the social, cultural, and economic effect that having “a share and a say” as full partners in major projects has had in her territory. Both she and Kory Wilson of BCIT, who hosted the event, spoke passionately to watching their people move “through the post-colonial door” – from administering poverty to administering wealth – through purposeful and principled economic development.

All in all, my takeaway impression of the morning was of strong Indigenous women leaders (two prominently my co-workers and mentors at MT+Co.). Smart proponents: take note. Smart lawyers provoke.

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