Reconciliation in Indigenous Economic Development Initiatives

By Frankie Young, Assistant Professor, Western Law

This is a critical time in Canada for key stakeholders to consider the role of economics in the broader mandate of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Indigenous entrepreneurs and businesses bring unique perspectives and creative talent and products to the market and coming generations will be important contributors to this end. Because economic development provides a pathway for Indigenous peoples to become self-sustaining, much thought should be given to how Nations can do this on their own terms without compromising culture and tradition. From time immemorial, Indigenous Nations have been economically organized around self-sustaining systems of resource and community asset management, primarily through the gathering and dispersing of goods acquired through traditional economic activities. Because of the diversity among Indigenous nations, including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, across what is now Canada, Indigenous economies or governance cannot be easily generalized, except to highlight that all Indigenous societies had (and have) distinct economies and governance systems. After settler colonialism interrupted Indigenous production and resource governance systems, these systems were forced to evolve over hundreds of years. However, Indigenous Nations’ economic systems, while taking many different forms (depending upon the Nation in question), can still be more generally distinguished from Eurocentric systems by their focus on the collective and sharing and group recognition.

In contemporary times, reconciliation with Indigenous peoples has been at the forefront of discussions around socio-political, legal and economic developments in Canada. Improving the economic position of the Indigenous peoples of Canada requires a bold, forward-thinking focus on economic reconciliation from which Indigenous peoples are recognized as a critical part of the economic fabric of the Canadian market economy. Reconciliation is therefore meaningless if it is not measured with Indigenous “economic reconciliation” in mind. Economic development should provide a pathway for Indigenous peoples to become self-sustaining. Yet, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has noted that economic development has all too often interrupted Indigenous peoples’ culture, including their spiritual and economic ties to ancestral lands; this has devasted traditional economies and self-sufficiency. Indigenous governments, however, are more recently gaining greater political consciousness with a view to attaining autonomy. As such, much thought should be given to how to manage Indigenous assets and resources in ways that assert Indigenous legal traditions and cultures. Simply put, respecting Indigenous Nations’ unique ways of engaging in economics should be the foundation of  “economic reconciliation.” For Indigenous peoples to be on par with the greater Canadian economy, Indigenous laws, customs and traditions should not have to be compromised.

What does “economic reconciliation” look like? First, the principle of sustainability guides many, if not most, Indigenous Nations. The prerequisite to take only as much as you need impacts how a community might conduct business and engage in economic development. For example, the Mi’kmaq peoples in eastern Canada are guided by Netukulimk, which means “achieving adequate standards of community nutrition and economic well-being without jeopardizing the integrity, diversity, or productivity of our environment.” The Tsilhqot’in peoples also understand sustainability through the concept of Nulh Ghah Dechen Ts’edilhtan, which means killing only as much as you need to carry you through. Sustainability for Indigenous peoples means that economic endeavors should align with a Nation’s laws, culture, values and autonomy. That is, to generate economic benefits for all present and future community members, without running the risk of serious detrimental impacts that have historically decimated Indigenous Nations’ cultures, Indigenous laws and values should be included in the decision-making processes for economic development initiatives.

As Nations across Canada are diverse, decision-making processes should be respected as being unique for each Nation. When Nations engage in economics with the preservation of their unique Indigenous legal traditions in mind, communities are able to experience the social transformation at the heart of community-based economic development initiatives. Economic development initiatives that are grounded in Indigenous values and principles enable a Nation to transform its socio-economic status from one of dependence to independence. Nations in turn are able to create enduring economic cultures that are grounded in Indigenous values such as stewardship, accountability and sustainability. These values are at the forefront of decision making for many Nations who want to not only benefit current community members but future ones as well. To this end, while many Nations have aspirations for regional and global economic engagement, decisions are to be made with the next seven generations in mind. The result is that engagement in traditional decision-making processes have more meaningful impacts on community well-being for many generations to come.

This blog post has been adapted from a longer article published in the McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law- “Indigenous Economic Development and Sustainability: Maintaining the Integrity of Indigenous Culture in Corporate Governance” (2021) 17:1 MJSDL