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By Frank Busch
The Chiefs of Northern Manitoba gathered in Winnipeg for the 2013 Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) Economic Summit, Trade Show and Jobs Fair recently. MKO has their work cut out for them as they attempt to chart a course from poverty to prosperity. While approximately $3 billion in revenue from hydro, mining, forestry, fisheries and tourism is generated in Northern Manitoba every year, the First Nations in that region remain some of the poorest in the country. The MKO Chiefs understand that First Nations have been left out in the past and cannot afford to be left out in the future.
“If you fail to plan, you plan to fail” says Chief Garrison Settee of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation “it’s not enough to just talk about economic development, we have to make it happen.”
Manitoba Hydro alone will invest more than $34 billion in Northern Manitoba over the next 20 years. The main projects to be undertaken are Bipole III Transmission Project, the Keeyask and Conawapa generating stations, their associated domestic AC transmission facilities and a new Canada-U.S. transmission interconnection. The issue put to the MKO Chiefs is on how to best navigate these uncharted waters.
“Building wealth through partnerships will improve the living conditions, economies and well-being of northern First Nations” says MKO Grand Chief David Harper.
Towards that end, MKO invited and received addresses from players from government, industry and educational institutions including: NikiAshton, Member of Parliament for the Churchill Riding; Brian Pallister, Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and the Official Opposition in Manitoba; Stephanie Forsyth, President and CEO of Red River College; Dr. David T. Barnard, President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Manitoba; Mayor Tim Johnston, City of Thompson and many other presenters from the national and international business community.
Historically, these types of conferences saw most of these presentations fall on deaf ears due to past conflicts and injuries. The mood this time around was different, as both sides could now recognize the need to work together. With First Nations rights under section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 being increasingly recognized and upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada, all players see that they must find common ground to fully realize the benefits of resource development. The negotiations often centre on what the comparatively poorer First Nations in Northern Manitoba bring to the table.
“Our greatest resource in the north is our people” says Chief Michael Constant of Opaskwayak Cree Nation, “if we invest in our youth through education their success will be our success.”
A study of the demographics suggests that Chief Constant is absolutely right. While the mainstream Canadian population is aging (and baby-boomers are looking to retire) the Aboriginal population is exploding. This presents great economic opportunities for Aboriginal Youth (especially in the trades) who make up the majority of the First Nations community. The challenge for the MKO Chiefs is how to best prepare their young people to benefit from the coming resource boom. With growing technologies in all sectors, unskilled labour employment is becoming scarce. Industry is demanding an educated and tech-savvy labour force.
The take away from the conference was the path the MKO Chiefs are forging for the future. The charted course includes partnering with government and industry to develop aboriginal procurement and employment equity, corporate social responsibility, accommodation, engagement and revenue and benefit sharing. Putting all the pieces together in order to make it all work is the challenge for the MKO Chiefs, a challenge made more difficult by the fact that the organization is facing an 80 per cent cut to its core funding.
“I commend the leadership of Grand Chief David Harper and his team for their efforts in coordinating this event and bringing together opportunities to partner with the business community” stated AFN National Chief Shawn A-in-Chut Atleo in a special message to the delegates, “This summit goes a long way in advancing opportunities to improve the living conditions of First Nations in the north who are some of our most vulnerable.”
The MKO Chiefs now have direction, purpose and encouragement to begin to forge a new path forward. Success is the only option available if their communities are to survive and thrive. With a dwindling Canadian labour force and hydro-electricity needed to power the Ring of Fire in the east and oil and Natural gas development in the west, their struggle may make or break the future of the entire country.
This column originally appeared in Troy media, www.troymedia.com.
Frank Busch is Director of Information and Marketing with the First Nations Finance Authority. The views expressed, however, are his own.