Big business wants them at the negotiating table, and is urging the federal and provincial governments to lend a helping hand.
A new report due Monday from the Canadian Council of Chief Executives, prepared for Canada's premiers in advance of their meeting later this month, urges governments to make aboriginal communities full partners in developing energy and mining projects.
Governments should help train a growing aboriginal workforce and develop new ways to support aboriginal communities so that they can participate vigorously in business initiatives and negotiations to share the wealth, says the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Canadian Press.
And the stakes are high: the viability of billions of dollars in natural resource investment, said John Manley, the council's chief executive.
"You have to find a negotiation arrangement where everybody benefits. The problem from the business side is more one of predictability of process," Manley said in an interview.
For corporations, which look at potential projects from a cost-benefit perspective, the downside of not having all interested parties on board and pulling in the same direction quickly becomes insurmountable, he said.
"Can you look at this, and construct a road map to completion within a reasonable period of time?'" Manley said.
"Because if you can't get there in a reasonable period of time, or if you can't figure out how you are going to manage all of the different and contradictory interests, the odds are, your capital will be better deployed elsewhere."
The federal government recently passed into law fundamental changes to environmental assessment and the Fisheries Act, in an attempt to speed up the approvals process for natural resource development.
At the same time, Ottawa put an extra $13.6 million into supporting aboriginal participation in environmental assessments — an acknowledgment that First Nations demands must be dealt with in order for many projects to proceed.
But First Nations are appalled at the changes to environmental assessment and fisheries, saying they will erode federal oversight of the land and weaken aboriginal say in how natural resources are developed.
Plus, many First Nations oppose the Northern Gateway pipeline and are speaking up to demand larger roles in mining and hydro developments in other parts of the country too.
Sharing resource revenues is likely to be a key theme at the Assembly of First Nations annual meetings this week in Toronto, with chiefs comparing notes on how aboriginal communities can speak with a more powerful voice.
The development of the Victor diamond mine in northern Ontario is instructive.
Diamond giant De Beers negotiated for years with the Attawapiskat First Nation to determine benefits for the local population stemming from the company's nearby project.
The company and both levels of government contributed to training funds, and the company covered the cost of shoring up Attawapiskat's negotiating team. They signed an impact benefits agreement that has meant $325 million flowing to community members over the past six years.
Now, about 20 per cent of the Victor mine workforce — about 100 people — is from Attawapiskat. Contracts and business connections with the First Nation meant another $53 million flowed into that community of 1800 people in 2011 alone.
"I've seen a lot of personal success stories," said De Beers Canada spokesman Tom Ormsby.
The outcomes would be even better, however, if governments had engaged with Attawapiskat and the corporation earlier in the process, so that the aboriginal workforce was fully trained and ready to go the minute the mine went into production, Ormsby added.
The recent housing crisis in the community, as well as its ongoing struggles with abject poverty, show that the benefits of the mine, however ample, are not distributed well, added Charlie Angus, the NDP MP whose riding includes Attawapiskat.
Like the corporations and First Nations, Angus sees the need for new thinking by federal and provincial governments to allow for a more organized way of bringing aboriginal people into the natural resource development equation.
"Every single time we're developing this process, it's from scratch," he said.
He wants to see a government-designed process that has as its goal "transformative investment" that works as well for First Nations as it does for corporations.
Manley agreed that while corporations have a business incentive to negotiate with First Nations, government support is necessary to set up a framework that ensures all of society benefits.
"If we leave the responsibility entirely with the corporate sector, it's probably not going to be accomplished," he said. "At the end of the day, the governments have to be involved."
For the chief executives, a solid plan to make First Nations "true partners" in resource development is a key part of a national energy strategy that they want the premiers to shift into full gear at their meeting in Halifax.
For years, they have urged Ottawa and the provinces to set a price on carbon, diversify markets, streamline approvals, and generally make sure provincial and national climate policies are consistent.
The executives have placed their hopes in the premiers, rather than Ottawa, because at the federal level, "there's not an appetite for it," Manley said.
Now, with Alberta Premier Alison Redford onside, the idea has gained considerable traction, said Manley.
"Quite frankly, if they (in Alberta) want to lead it and champion it, we're happy to cheer them on from the sidelines."
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