Jim Prentice, who left government to become a top banking executive, said Tuesday that aboriginal peoples in this country now have the chance to cash in on a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — but the clock is ticking.
"They will need to seize that opportunity and use the so-called duty-to-consult to really negotiate economic participation in some of the resource projects that are happening across Canada," he told The Canadian Press.
"These are incredible opportunities. They don't come along necessarily very often, and so I think there's a historic opportunity, I think, over the next 25 years for First Nations to benefit from these opportunities if they negotiate to their advantage."
Prentice delivered the same message Tuesday in Whitehorse at the annual gathering of the Assembly of First Nations.
His words carry considerable weight with many First Nations people. The former aboriginal affairs minister and land-claims negotiator is well-respected for his work on — and approach to — First Nations issues.
But Prentice also has serious economic cachet as a senior executive at the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, and as a former minister of industry and minister of environment.
His background in First Nations, business and natural resources puts him in a spot to be the bridge between what can at times be competing or conflicting interests.
Indeed, Prentice told the AFN that it is crucial that economic benefits are weighed against environmental concerns.
"For any and all energy and resource projects, especially those involving First Nations and other indigenous groups, environmental standards must be strong — and remain strong over the life of the project," he said, according to a text of his speech.
"Growth and jobs must be achieved not merely with a nod to environmental safety and protection, but with an unblinking focus and commitment."
Prentice's advice to the AFN included moving quickly to the table with industry; negotiating constructively, with an end goal in sight; working together so First Nations can negotiate with a single voice; getting good advisers; and, taking an ownership role in some energy projects.
"My concern is that ... a lot of the nation-building infrastructure that we're talking about, everything from (liquefied natural gas) terminals on the West Coast to the Ring of Fire to pipeline opportunities, these are going to move ahead in the country," Prentice said in an interview.
"If the duty-to-consult isn't used to get First Nations to the table and get agreements, then they will get left behind, and we will have lost the opportunity to lift people out of poverty."
First Nations have spent years in the courts and pushing governments and companies alike to give them a larger share of the bounty from Canada's natural resources. They have also taken their cause to the streets.
In his opening remarks to the Whitehorse meeting, AFN National Chief Shawn Atleo said there is tangible progress because business sees the need for cooperation.
"The private sector is realizing that First Nations have a key role in any development that’s planned in and around their traditional territories," Atleo said, according to the text of his remarks. "These industries are in turn pressing the government for real change based on free, prior and informed consent and, where First Nations see development as respectful, responsible and sustainable, real revenue sharing arrangements."