by Frank Larue
First Nations business has gone down many different streets in the last ten years, but few First Nations businessmen would have decided to open a trade office in Bejing. The Lax Kw’alaam First Nations had their own agenda, and dealing directly with China seemed like a good idea, so why not have an office in the fastest growing city in China? Wayne Drury, CEO for Coast Tsimshian Resources remembers, “Some people looked at us and said, ‘Are you guys crazy?’” For 2011, the Band has projected $40 million coming from China, mainly from the export of timber.
Drury wants to help other BC First Nations trade with China and use their office in Bejing as a portal in setting up negotiations. China has become the biggest customer for BC lumber, surpassing the United States in 2011. The office in Bejing will assist other Bands, and since they have already set up relationships with the Chinese, they can also help the Chinese familiarize themselves with the BC Native Bands. “There is a perception out there that our people are out to block everything. That’s not the case,” said Ed John, who now represents First Nations at the UN. “But if you are coming to our house, you better knock first.”
Canadian officials from the Board of Trade are projecting that Canada’s trade with China will be $60 Billion by 2015. First Nations, with the exception of the Lax Kw’alaam, have not benefited from the immense trade this country has developed with China. Ed John is hoping to change that. He has organized four trade missions to China and will be there in October to help raise a totem pole built by Aboriginal youth in BC to commemorate the deaths of the Chinese in the 2008 earthquake. Trade missions to China have rarely included First Nations, but John feels this was not a pragmatic decision, and the work done by Lax Kw’alaam has proven him right. “When our drums and regalia come out, the tone in the room changes completely. The Chinese understand culture and tradition. We are creating our own opportunities here. The key lies in educating investors on the need to secure informed consent from the bands even in a province where the government doesn’t always recognize that standard.”
The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada is optimistic, even though he knows there needs to be a more direct connection with First Nations. “There is a lot of ignorance about the role First Nations play in resource development projects in British Columbia,” he told the Globe and Mail. “Most Chinese investors probably come across this issue after the fact, when they have proceeded with plans to partner with mainstream Canadian companies.” He’s aware that most First Nation Bands would help Native economies. “I think we are talking about billions of dollars.” The door has opened with Lax Kw’alaam, but other bands are getting in on the action. The Kaska Dena are in the final stages of cutting a deal with the Chinese to open a silver mine on their territories, and this only the tip of the iceberg. Ed John and BC First Nations are finally on a road that could be a giant step in establishing themselves as business partners and financial solvency that could impact BC First Nations for generations to come.