TORONTO — The National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations on Monday brought a message of reconciliation to corporate Canada — as long as aboriginal peoples are brought into a broad economic partnership with the rest of the country.
Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, speaking at the Canadian Club of Toronto, said early co-operation between First Nations can avoid intractable disputes over resource development projects across the country.
"Currently, First Nations are often the last to know about major resource development. This relegates our communities to few options, usually resulting in confrontation. So we end up with protests and legal battles that frustrate opportunities for everyone and deepen tensions today and into the future," Atleo said.
"We are not opposed to development but we must be involved at the outset. First Nation rights and responsibilities demand that we are full partners in discussions about exploration, ownership, participation in production and long-term sustainability of our environment, our communities and our futures."
Economic partnership is a cornerstone of true reconciliation, he said.
"We can do things the hard way or the harder way," he said, noting that the population growth rate among aboriginal people was more than 25 per cent compared to only six per cent for the general population.
"Young people," he said, nodding toward a table of aboriginal students who were given a special invitation to the luncheon, "that means you are at the front edge of an aboriginal tsunami that is washing across our respective territories."
"Almost every resource development activity currently operating or planned is occurring within 200 kilometres of a First Nations' community and right in the middle of our traditional territories."
He looked back for a way forward, pointing to the fur trade as a historic precedent of mutually beneficial co-operation — calling it "our early joint economic venture."
"We can recapture the essential elements of shared gains that were hallmarks of those efforts," and apply it to today's economic endeavours.
"Whether through agriculture, mining, fishing, forestry, energy or emerging technologies, our nations and our rights are a reality and present unlimited opportunities if we can get this right. And I believe we can get this right.
"With this as our solid foundation, we can then live the promise of the ancestors — our collective ancestors — and fulfil the potential of treaty, a real partnership and the greatness that this country has yet to achieve," he said.
This was the second time Atleo spoke to the Canadian Club of Toronto. Last year he spoke on the political and social dimensions of the inequalities between aboriginal peoples and the rest of Canada.