Attawapiskat First Nation – an isolated northern Ontario reserve – played a prominent role in the Idle No More indigenous protest movement that erupted in 2012.
Then-chief Theresa Spence complained to the media about unacceptable housing conditions on the Attawapiskat reserve. The movement was energized by her decision to declare a hunger strike to raise awareness of the ongoing First Nation housing and infrastructure crises.
A government-commissioned audit in 2012 found little proper documentation for millions of dollars spent by the Attawapiskat band government.
Then Attawapiskat largely fell out of the news.
But, a few weeks ago, diamond producer De Beers announced it was shelving plans for expansion of a nearby mine. The company had planned to draw five or six more years of production from the mine. However, without Attawapiskat support, the company will not proceed.
During Idle No More, Attawapiskat leaders complained about the relationship between the community and De Beers, criticizing the company’s impact and benefits agreement as insufficient for community needs.
However, the solution is to seek a better agreement, not to stop production at the mine.
Attawapiskat would certainly benefit from mine activity, which would help pay for much-needed housing. The chief and band councillors are ignoring opportunities right under their noses.
Legally, De Beers does not need Attawapiskat’s consent to continue mining the deposit; it only needs to consult and accommodate the nation’s residents to the degree it can. But the company is not interested in the difficulty of continual protests from community members, so it’s insisting on community consent before moving forward with the project.
In 2016, the Frontier Centre for Public Policy released a study that looked at the seven habits or governance principles that lead to highly-effective First Nations. It evaluated some of the top First Nations in Canada and determined what defined their success. In its dealings with De Beers, Attawapiskat is ignoring these habits. Attawapiskat is, like so many other indigenous communities, ignoring partnership opportunities and adopting bad habits related to governance and the handling of employment opportunities.
Attawapiskat is a remote community so it lacks many advantages of more urban First Nations. However, many of the habits of good governance still apply.
The first principle is to recognize and take advantage of economic opportunities available to the community. Located near mineral resources, Attawapiskat must tap into that economic engine to provide jobs and opportunities for its people.
“There is no single path to progress except to make use of whatever advantages are available,” said the study authors.
Over the years, De Beers has signed hundreds of millions of dollars in business contracts with the community. The company also funded a community training centre and has established a trust fund for band members. If Attawapiskat doesn’t approve this mine expansion and build on existing business relationships, it’s guilty of squandering a significant opportunity.
The community is also ignoring two other principles that define effective First Nations: being flexible and co-operating with others. Like it or not, Attawapiskat’s future lies in successful co-operation with non-aboriginal resource companies.
The band government should also heed the principles of respecting transformative leadership and running a businesslike government. Resource companies are more likely to work with transparent and accountable band governments.
Attawapiskat should serve as a lesson for all indigenous communities that are adopting bad habits of governance and ignoring opportunities that could deal with housing and other infrastructure crises facing First Nations.
Like all indigenous communities, it needs transformational leaders who will take advantage of their assets and work in partnership with others.
Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (fcpp.org).