Working with Aboriginal Communities Critical to Business Success

Landmark court decisions from the Supreme Court of Canada over the past 35 years are having a significant impact on the relationship between business and the Aboriginal community.

The court rulings – in such areas as the definition of infringement of rights; the duty to consult on the part of the federal and provincial governments; the existence of aboriginal title; treaty rights; Aboriginal rights; the inclusion and participation of Aboriginal stakeholders; and the necessity for business to receive full and informed consent from Aboriginal rights-holders – are forcing business to conclude that working with Aboriginal people and their communities has become a critical component of corporate operational planning.

The more, or less, a company articulates a desire to build ties with Aboriginal people is a critical component of a economically successful relationship. Which position it decides to pursue is crucial to conducting activities on the traditional territories of Aboriginal peoples.

Aboriginal Awareness Training and Aboriginal Consultation Training is only the beginning of establishing long-term committed relationships.

Unfortunately, while the Supreme Court directed the federal and provincial governments to pursue a full and complete reconciliation with Aboriginal people, most governments’ responses have been slow in coming. In fact, it has been 25 years for the federal government.

Both the federal and provincial governments, however, are aggressively developing their own individual “Aboriginal Consultation Guidelines” for their respective employee base. And industry has been developing its own unique methods and processes of consultation for more than 35 years.

Some provinces have learned and have created theirs as well, with much improved, acceptable and doable policies and processes. Saskatchewan, for example, under its new government, has begun province wide roundtable discussions to build its own homegrown consultation guidelines with input from the Aboriginal communities across the province.

The various corporate communities, whether construction, oil sands, forestry, pipelines or mining, have also developed their own unique ‘consultation’ guidelines – by cherry-picking from all the choices available – to meet their needs and because the provincial guidelines simply won’t work for them.

As soon as land is leased or a claim filed, it is imperative for business to identify and, if necessary, develop its business case that it will present to the Aboriginal community. It is from the business case that the development of the Aboriginal Relations Program arises.

A combination of the business case and a well-thought out Aboriginal Relations Program will ensure that all employees and management are all rowing in the same direction for all the same reasons. Certainty and confidence brings comfort and positive participation from all stakeholders.

Investors, customers and employees will come to understand how important these genuine, sincere committed partnerships are to the long-term well being of the project. Your Aboriginal partners must be involved, equally committed and fully engaged to ensure fulfillment of the mutual benefit philosophy and common goals.

Don’t underrate the ‘getting to know you’ time in the relationship. It will provide you with the opportunity to ask the question: “Would you (Aboriginal leaders) help us develop a consultation plan we can both agree to so we can begin our formal consultation process.”

And remember, broken promises ultimately lead to broken projects. That’s the bottom line.

Other things to consider: what is the Aboriginal community’s capacity to consult and/or negotiate?; have you assisted in the preparation of traditional land use studies?; have you assisted in the mapping of traditional lands and/or associated claims, human resource inventories and identified economic development opportunities including business start-ups and associated contracting.?

Currently there are hundreds of Impact Benefit Agreements all across Canada, with dozens more in various stages of consultation. More are occurring every day in every industry. All are different, with many unique and tailored provisions. While industry has pretty much accepted the why and what of this process, it is time to answer the questions of who and how, especially for those trying to catch up. It is being done, there are many proven best practices and business is taking place.

Get to know the difference between stakeholders and rights-holders: who they are and how they differ.

Look on the relationship as a courtship: as the relationship evolves and grows, so does respect and trust. Working productively through the consultation with the Aboriginal community requires a lot of work, many specialized skills, sincerity, genuine long-term commitments and a full and complete understanding of your new partners.

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Our clients include RBC Financial Group, Shell Canada Ltd., Ledcor Industries, ATCO Group of Companies, De Beers Canada, Schlumberger, Weyerhaeuser and many dozens of other corporations and government departments.

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