Blog: Reconcile our past so that we can move forward

History and the road to Reconciliation

Our Alliance CEO, Karen Ogen-Toews, took part in an online discussion hosted by the Sault Ste. Marie Chamber of Commerce: Resource Champions: Creating Indigenous Prosperity.

What follows is a condensed and lightly edited version of her remarks on several topics.

We are in the era of Reconciliation. It’s in the air, it’s everywhere . . . (but), first off, I think there needs to be a genuine understanding of our past.”

  • On that history and the future

How can mainstream small and medium businesses contribute to economic reconciliation? There needs to be a genuine understanding of our past. We cannot undo the past, but we can learn from it and work with Indigenous communities, and one of the ways they can do that is by having the desire to learn about our history, learn what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is and its 94 calls to action. Learn what UNDRIP is, what it is and what it isn’t, and learn about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Those are huge issues that each First Nation across Canada deals with on a daily basis. Really learn about all of these issues that Indigenous people face, and find ways to come in and support those communities.

How things were done in the past doesn’t work. We have to find new ways to work with Indigenous people because we’re here to stay. UNDRIP is here to stay. People see UNDRIP as a veto for First Nations to say no to projects. No, it isn’t. We finally have a seat at the table. We finally have a voice at the table where we’re able to say yes, we support this project or no we don’t and these are the reasons why. Being stewards of the land, and trying to balance our economy; those are two things that First Nations across Canada struggle with; our economy, and really trying to find ways forward for our nations. Companies can really start to find ways to make inroads in working with Indigenous communities.

Residential Schools are part of our history with education, so we need to turn these things around and make them positive. In order to build capacity within our communities, we need to build education and training.

The intergenerational trauma that our people have experienced, the residential schools, the ‘60s scoop (the mass removal of Indigenous children from their families into the non-Indigenous welfare system), all of that has impact on our communities. It’s like being cut off at the knees and expecting us to walk. So we really need to find healing as our foundation and overcome our past. Reconcile our own past. Do reconciliation within our own communities and promote healing.

The finding of the 215 unmarked graves (at the former Indian Residential School at Kamloops in 2021) really opened the eyes of, not only Canada, but also of Indigenous communities, that this really happened to us. What was meant for schools and learning and education became burial grounds for our people. And that’s not what education is about.

Imagine yourself, each of you that have children, imagine your three-year-old baby being taken away in the back of a cattle truck, not to be seen for 10 months. A three-year-old baby. That was our reality. And then we’re expected to perform in mainstream society like nothing happened to us.

I think that’s where we have to come to a place of understanding our history. Don’t feel sorry for us. Come alongside us and ask, “How can we help? How can we become your ally? How can we help promote healing within your community? How can we help you build capacity within your community?”

I think when we come to partner and collaborate, on all of these different issues communities face, that’s where we start to build those bridges, build those roads of trust. Those are critical pieces and I think there’s still a lot of people across Canada that don’t know our history and they want to work with industry or government. Well, you’re going to have to take that History 101 on Indigenous People because there’s no way around it.

We’re here to stay. There’s no way around it. You’ve got to sit and talk with us. You’ve got to build those relationships, and learn about what Reconciliation is.

  • On resource development

 Back in the day, at least, here in B.C. in the 1950s, once we were put onto reserve lands, resource development just took over. Pipelines have been put in the ground with absolutely no consultation, no accommodation. No benefits were going back to our communities.

But now there’s no way to bypass Indigenous communities, especially here in B.C.

Out of the 600 First Nations across Canada, 200 are in BC, so you cannot bypass any Indigenous community, because you’re on somebody’s territory. And so, in this day and age, it would be remiss for any resource-development company to go and not speak to Indigenous communities.

Some of the opposition to some of the pipelines highlighted and brought some Indigenous people’s issues to the forefront. Not a lot of Canadians knew the history of what’s happened, and transpired with Indigenous people. It brought our issues to the forefront. ‘Why are some Indigenous people opposing these pipelines and why must we pay more and more close attention?’ So now no company can come through the territories without consultation and accommodation with indigenous people.

Why is there resistance to resource-development projects? Because we have never had that seat at the table. We’ve never had a voice, we’ve never had benefits go back to communities. We’ve had to do a real learning curve here in B.C. in relation to pipelines. People thought that pipelines were just something that were coming about. They don’t know that pipelines have been put in since the 1950s with absolutely no consultation, no accommodation to Indigenous people.

And when our communities started to engage with industry and government about this, we had to do our community consultation and teach our communities about what is going on, what are these projects? How come we have a say now when we didn’t before? And it’s been a real learning curve, and we had to do our community consultations along the whole process of the project.

Because our community relied on Indigenous Services Canada, we were basically managing poverty. So we had to look at “Do we maintain this status quo or do we go out and do something different?”  So through sitting down and talking to industry and government about major projects in our territories, there are going to be benefits coming back to us, and that’s what we had to hone in on, and how we’re going to manage that.

  • On resource jobs and procurement

There were three streams of different procurement opportunities for our Wet’suwet’en Nation that were put into our process agreement with the Coastal Gaslink pipeline. Those three streams were camps and catering, security, and land-clearing.

They just thought, “Well we’ve met the threshold, we can just walk away now.” But our particular nation had persistence. We persevered, and we said, “Look, we want more opportunities.”

Some of the pushback was, “Well, there are overlaps in your territory, so we need to be able to say no because it will be a big fight on our hands.”

But where there’s a will, there’s a way. So we would work with those nations that were considered as having overlaps in our territory and we would partner with them and say, “Look, we’re working together, we want this opportunity provided to us.”

The way we viewed it was, “If you’re going through our backyard, we want a say, we want direct-award contracts.” And why not?

We had to continuously persevere with the company to ensure that Indigenous people along the pipeline route were taken care of. And one of the principles we used is, “It’s not about capitalism, it’s about making sure everyone is taken care of. That nobody is being left out.” So we really tried to look at inclusion, and ensure that all 20 First Nations (on the pipeline route) are included. How do we create a win-win situation here. So not only do we talk about direct awards, we’ve been finding ways to ensure that our nations would be able to procure contracts along the pipeline route, not only in our section, but across all sections. So, I think that was really important and critical for us.

We pushed for employment and training. We wanted trades for our community members, we wanted them to work towards the Red Seal (trades certifications). Those were the long-term outcomes that we expected for our members, because not only will they have a job, they’ll have a career under their belts once the project is completed

  • On capacity building

One big, glaring piece that I see is in relation to capacity building. I think that we, all too often look at the glass as half full. We have to start looking at things from a strength-based perspective, and say “How can we help?” And we have to start thinking about how can we work outside the box, and how are we going to help these small, indigenous businesses to succeed?

So now we have to start from scratch, start building those businesses up. One thing that I think of is mentors helping them with the bidding process, or project management. We need to start thinking outside the box to help empower those First Nations to build our capacity, to start building. I really think we need to look at how we can build upon what’s already there. That’s how we get started, that’s how we build relationships, that’s how we build trust. I just firmly believe that all of us started somewhere. and somebody gave us a break. I think we just have to look for those win-win opportunities.

What is it that the project needs? What is it our community needs? It’s capacity. Throughout, whether it be in administration, whether it be in finance, whether it be in project management, across the board, we need capacity. We need companies to work with First Nations, to help us build capacity. Find ways and means to help us deliver programs and training services for our nation. I think that the pandemic has taught us a few things. We can do projects and services by Zoom, we can get into a community, teach them what they need to know, and get them certified, get them qualified for these jobs and, help them build and empower their communities in relation to their capacity.

  • On relationship building

What’s really important and critical, right from the get-go to the end of the project, and even beyond, is relationship building. Trust is probably the most critical component of that, because once you’ve built that relationship, once you’ve built that trust, then you can go a long way with that particular First Nation.

I always speak from my own experience with my own community, with the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. It’s a small community. We’ve had to be creative and innovative and think outside the box when it came to joint-venture partnership. Where we lack capacity, we partnered with companies that had the capacity.

  • On community issues

For our small community, we had to look at, for one thing, getting our own-source revenue back into education and training. Residential Schools are part of our history with education, so we need to turn these things around and make them positive. In order to build capacity within our communities, we need to build that education and training pillar. Then there’s housing; we have such a lack of housing, a housing shortage, poor housing, overcrowding in housing. So we need to find a way forward for our communities to live in healthy homes, just so that our families can grow and prosper. To have a good, safe environment, a roof over your head.

And then language and culture is another critical component that we’ve been looking at. Without our language and culture, we become just brown people living within a community. We need to know who we are and where we come from.

And I think that the whole premise of governance is really important. We’ve learned the concept of nation building. What does that mean to us? What does self-determination mean to us? It’s taking our guiding principles, our values and principles of who we are.

One of the concepts that we have learned is it’s not about capitalism, it’s not about getting rich. It’s about taking care of our community. Making sure no one gets left behind. It’s not a competitive atmosphere, it’s about making sure we take care of everybody in the community and that nobody gets left behind. And be inclusive. Include everyone in the community. And I think those are really important principles to live by; really doing some community development and making sure our community members are taken care of. And that, to me, is about showing what Economic Reconciliation means to us. We’ve got to start somewhere. Healing is parr of what we need to do, whether it be in leadership, or in business, we need to reconcile our past so that we can move forward.

(Posted here 16 November 2022)


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