First Nations resource development group stalled by the AFN

National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo speaks at a news conference Thursday January 10, 2013 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld.

OTTAWA – A government working group set up to ensure aboriginals share the benefits of natural resource development is more than a month behind schedule because the Assembly of First Nations has yet to nominate its members.

The delay comes after the previous incarnation, a joint economic task force, fell apart last November after two AFN appointees quit, according to briefing notes released to Global News under access to information.

The creation of a working group was among the pledges made at this year’s Jan. 11 meeting between Prime Minister Stephen Harper and National Chief Shawn Atleo, and reflects a similar commitment made at the 2012 Crown-First Nations gathering.

The four-member group, with two members and co-chairs each nominated by the AFN and the department of aboriginal affairs, was supposed to start its seven-month term on June 1.

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But that hasn’t happened. The federal government has picked its members, but the AFN has not. Once the nominees are in place, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt will make the appointments, the note says.

“We are working to ensure we can get the right people in place on the group to ensure it is useful and produces results,” an AFN spokesman said in a statement.

“In the meantime, there is no reason to withhold progress for First Nations that are pursuing their own laws, projects or processes on a local, regional or even national basis. The National Chief has confirmed that this remains a priority and together with the national executive, the working group will be confirmed this month.”

He said resource revenue sharing will also be a prominent issue at the upcoming Council of the Federation meeting, hosted by Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne in Niagara-on-the-Lake July 24 to 26.

Resource development and revenue sharing with First Nations on projects ranging from mining, oil sands and pipelines has been top-of-mind in recent years for Canada’s aboriginals who want more say, and stake, in what is developed on traditional land.

Former Liberal MP Bob Rae recently quit politics to take on the role of chief negotiator for First Nations with the province in the Ring of Fire mining development in Northern Ontario, while a Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business report released last month says the natural resource sector could prove an important asset in addressing a high jobless rate among Canada’s aboriginal population.

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Derek Nepinak, Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs who is seen as a rival to Atleo, said resource equity is at the heart of the honouring the treaty relationship with First Nations.

“When it comes to resource development that goes right to the heart of the treaty agenda,” he said.

“The distributions have to be reconsidered under Canadian law, under provincial law, under the natural resource transfer agreements and the various administrative arrangements … so that we can break through the poverty we’ve been living through under the contribution funding arrangements that have been used to prevent us from full participation.”

But he’s suspicious of a working group between Ottawa and the AFN. That’s why he is hosting a rival National Treaty Gathering in Onion Lake, Sask., next week as the AFN begins their annual gathering in Whitehorse.

“There’s just been too much happening behind closed doors, within bureaucracies in Ottawa, for any degree of security or trust,” he said.

Valcourt’s spokeswoman said the government has taken concrete action to improve economic development for aboriginal communities.

“Once the nominees have been put in place, this working group would put particular emphasis on identifying ways to ensure that First Nations are well positioned to participate in major natural resource development projects,” said spokeswoman Andrea Richer in an email.

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One of the government’s appointees appears to be Douglas Turnbull, the deputy chairman of TD Securities in Toronto.

When reached Wednesday, Turnbull said he hasn’t seen the final terms of reference but is still interested in the position.

“It seems to have gone quiet. I haven’t had a call or haven’t spoken to anyone in a little while. So I can’t really help you because I’m not sure the status of it myself,” he said.

Also contained in the briefing note is the suggestion the government will have a conflict on its hands when it comes to education reform. The note says the issue has been “divisive,” and engagement with the AFN on draft legislation presents a challenge.

Richer said the government is committing to having a First Nations Education Act in place by September 2014.

– With a file from The Canadian Press

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