First Nations Want More Influence at the Negotiation Table

By Kelly O’Connor

First Nations across Canada are becoming more aware of the industrial value of natural resources on their traditional lands and are intent on securing their positions in resource negotiations. Many First Nations have already signed deals with potential investors (many of them foreign) in hopes that their people will prosper and benefit from these partnerships. Often, these deals are penned in the form of a “memorandum of understanding.”

A memorandum of understanding (MOU) is a written document that outlines details of a proposed agreement between two or more parties. It can be as complex as an international anti-nuclear agreement, or as simple as a promise to do three weeks of yard work for a certain amount of pay. Creating an MOU helps parties define their relationship, commitments, and expectations without making explicit guarantees to fulfill them. It is a document of promise, a preliminary agreement that is not legally binding itself but can become the basis for a comprehensive legally binding contract. In essence, it’s a kind of treaty, a negotiation on paper.

In an article for the Sun Phoenix, lawyer Darren Winegarden (a member of the Kawacatoose First Nation) said that signing MOUs could leave First Nations with a weakened legal position if a company does not honor the initial agreement. “Instead of following a binding contract with these companies they’re following these memorandum of understandings and I think that’s weaker than a contract — less enforceable, less rights,” he said. “You’re bound, sort of, by goodwill almost, if I can put it that way. It’s not something that you can later take to the courts and enforce very well,” he said.

The province of Saskatchewan, in particular, is loaded with desirable properties rich in natural resources such as potash, uranium, coal, oil, natural gas, and building products (such as stone and gypsum). Of particular interest to Chief Rick Gamble and the residents of Beardy’s (a Cree reserve north of Saskatoon) is potash. Saskatchewan delivers about one-third of the world’s supply of potash (used to make fertilizer), and it is estimated that the province has enough potash to last for several hundred years. Current mines bring in approximately $2 billion annually, and the world’s largest potash mine operates near Esterhazy.

Chief Gamble told the Star Phoenix that he hopes the proposed potash mine near Dafoe, east of Saskatoon, will be help release his community from poverty. Beardy’s has already signed an MOU with Taiji Resources, a Chinese company. According to the Star Phoenix, Gamble says if the proposed potash mine is successful, the mine would employ a majority of First Nations people, and at least 51 per cent of the companies supplying services to the mine would come from Beardy’s. “The potash is there. This could be the big one for us,” Gamble said. Other promising recent partnerships include a $37-million, 6,000-hog operation (a deal made with a Taiwanese sugar company), a 100-megawatt wind farm (part of a SkyPower of Toronto deal), and an oilsands mining deal with the Chinese Petroleum Corporation.

University of Saskatchewan economist Eric Howe believes that providing an equal playing field for First Nations is essential. “A whole lot is riding on this for our province,” he told the Star Phoenix. “It is absolutely imperative to increase the extent to which aboriginal people are incorporated into the economy. Saskatchewan has no higher priority.” Howe believes that jobs and skill training are the keys to encouraging aboriginal economic development that lasts.

Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) vice-chief Delbert Wapass has taken steps to strengthen the negotiating position of First Nations during resource deals by creating a First Nations Natural Resources Centre of Excellence, scheduled to open its doors April 1 (possibly in Saskatoon). A “Centre of Excellence” (COE) consolidates resources and expertise so that individuals and organizations can work together more efficiently and effectively. COEs are meant to gather “the best and brightest,” innovators who then share their skills and knowledge on beneficial projects. Wapass told the Star Phoenix, “If it’s geologists we need, auditors, whatever, I think this will help the First Nations.”