Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Fresh Off The CCCJ Press!

The Canadian is the quarterly magazine produced by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan. Their fall issue featured an article of mine on Canada's growing Aboriginal business sector - and its recent move towards bona-fide 'nation-to-nation' trade with China, Japan and other East Asian countries.
Trade Winds Across the Pacific

Canada’s Aboriginal business sector is growing in strength and ambition – and East Asia is increasingly paying attention.

It is tempting to wonder what western Canada would look like today if the Chinese had stayed put. Chinese historical records indicate that a monk named Hwui Shan sailed northward around the Bering Strait and along the northwestern coast of North America a full millennium before Columbus’ voyage, and modern scholars have presented further evidence of pre-Columbian Chinese exploration of the continent. Needless to say no lasting relationship between China and indigenous North Americans came of this contact, but with Asia once again at the forefront of international trade, this relationship that never was looks to gain a second shot at life.

This summer saw a major breakthrough in Asian-Aboriginal relations with the launch of the First Nations-China: Transforming Relationships strategy, which in November will send a trade mission of some 100 First Nation, Métis and Inuit business leaders from across Canada on a four-city tour of China. The announcement received extensive coverage in Canada’s daily newspapers, as it not only underscored China’s new-found status as an apex export market for Canadian natural resources, but more importantly signalled the arrival of Aboriginal Canada on the world stage as an economic powerhouse in its own right.

While China’s rise has received outsized media attention over the past decade, the other story, that of the economic ascendency of Aboriginal Canada, remains as little known to most Canadians as it does to the outside world. The clichéd view of Canada’s original inhabitants as a tiny, beleaguered minority clinging to the fringes of confederation remains stubbornly prevalent, but holds little water nowadays. Canada’s Aboriginal population currently stands at around 1.2 million, surpassing all but three of Canada’s metropolitan centres, and is growing at a rate 1.5 times that of the rest of the population. Aboriginal people also claim sovereignty over a vast patchwork of reserves and traditional territories that account for over half of Canada’s total land mass, and much of the country’s resource wealth.

And while the social and economic ills that have plagued Aboriginal communities for generations remain enormous challenges, hard-won legal and political battles by native bands in the 1980s and 1990s presaged a new generation of Aboriginal entrepreneurs with unrivalled access to Canada’s resource wealth. The effect has been truly transformative. A recent study by Toronto Dominion Bank estimated the total revenue of First Nations households at $24 billion in 2011 (up from $12 billion in 2001), and is expected to rise to $32 billion by 2016.

Just as the Aboriginal economic footprint has been growing slowly over the past two decade, so too have Aboriginal Canada’s international economic engagements. Japan-Canada Oil Sands (JACOS) Ltd. has been active in northern Alberta since the late 1970s and over the past decade has cultivated strong ties with First Nations and Métis Settlements in the Fort McMurray region, with counterparts from China and South Korea following suit. British Columbia’s coastal First Nations have also been at the forefront of cultivating economic ties with Asia (and China in particular) in fisheries, forestry and mining, with the Vancouver-based Native Investment & Trade Association (NITA) taking a leading role in promoting Aboriginal-Asian economic relations in the early 2000s.

Author, entrepreneur and NITA President Calvin Helin asserts that current constitutional law makes it advantageous for companies to work directly with Aboriginal people. “Companies know they have to consult with First Nations,” explains Helin, the son of a hereditary Tsimshian chief from BC’s northwestern coast. “This burden is on industry and it can slow down projects. Companies are now realizing that they can get around this by working directly with First Nations.”

While the legal environment has without doubt played a central role in fostering international business conducted by First Nations, it is Aboriginal peoples’ inseparability from and commitment to their land bases that has made them key stakeholders in the Canadian economy. “The resources the world needs are found on First Nations’ traditional lands,” says Mel Benson, former director of the Fort McKay Group of Companies and current Suncor board member from central Alberta’s Beaver Lake Cree Nation. “We’ve got the raw product and we’re also part of its history. (Asian companies) are matching that with business experience and capital, and when that works, the opportunities are limitless. What we’re looking for as First Nations is economic certainty, same as industry and government.”

Helin echoes this view, adding that First Nations’ dual vested interest in economic development and preservation of their land make them uniquely suited for the role of stewards of the country’s resource economy. “We’ve been here for 10,000 years, and we’re not going anywhere. We want development, but at the same time we’re not going to destroy our own backyard. In the future, Aboriginal people are going to play a huge role in footing the cost of running Canada.”

While mutual economic need has been the primary driving force behind the convergence of East Asia and Canada’s First Nations, factors beyond simple economics hold the promise of long-lasting relationships across the Pacific. Although Aboriginal culture remain a largely unknown quotient in much of East Asia, tourism is doing much to change this, and interest in Aboriginal culture in Japan, China and elsewhere is on the increase. And in a similar fashion, Aboriginal entrepreneurs involved in Asia-Pacific business have become increasingly cognizant of the resemblances between Asian and Aboriginal Canadian culture.

“In our culture, the emphasis has always been on relationship-building rather than simply on money and details, same as in Asia,” says Helin, a well-known Japanophile and a Shudokan karate expert, who sees commonalities everywhere, from respect for elders to gifting protocols to non-verbal communication. “My coastal people are particularly ‘Asian’ with our emphasis on formalities, rank and status, but you see many commonalities across all Aboriginal societies.”

After over a century of struggle against cultural suppression and economic marginalization within confederation, Canada’s Aboriginal people find themselves in the odd position of building relationships with the emerging power bloc of the 21st century. However, this legacy of marginalization, coupled with growing concerns about environmental degradation – particularly in traditional territories adjacent to the oil sands – has imparted Aboriginal business leaders with a deep sense of caution. Many Aboriginal leaders remains adamantly opposed to industrial development on their lands, and those who do support it advocate a cautious approach.

“The problem moving ahead is making sure these are truly joint ventures,” asserts Mel Benson. “This kind of business is new to us, and if we’re not careful we’re going to get sidelined. But there are a lot of small partnerships on the ground now, with China, Korea and Japan, and as long as there’s capacity building and direct cash flow, I think it’s going to work.”

While reticence on the part of Aboriginal leaders is understandable, this new wave of trade missions and partnership does indeed hint at a new chapter in Aboriginal Canadian history, one characterized by mutually beneficial relationships in keeping with the original spirit of the Treaties and genuine ‘nation-to-nation’ exchange.

No comments:

Post a Comment