Keys to Unlocking the Indigenous Economy | The Tyee

May. 11, 2022
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‘The Indian Act has created a poor investment environment in First Nations communities.’ Photo via Public Policy Forum.

Success flows from First Nations developing strong institutions that can support and sustain social and economic growth.

Geordie Hungerford | May 10, 2022 |

How do we move forward as a country when poverty disproportionately impacts so many First Nations? The Indigenomics Institute estimates that a strong Indigenous economy could provide a $100 billion boost to the Canadian economy. This is one of the reasons why it’s clear that reconciliation and the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or UNDRIP, should be on the top of federal and provincial agendas. What, then, are keys to building more prosperous First Nations communities?

Economic development is not just the result of natural resources, education, geographic location, or chance. The same principles that underpin international economic development apply to First Nations here in Canada. A prerequisite for growth is that Indigenous Peoples can exercise their right to self-governance and have the capacity to govern themselves. Success is the result of First Nations developing strong institutions that can support and sustain social and economic growth.

The Indian Act has created a poor investment environment in First Nations communities. They are only able to attract businesses with the high-risk tolerance and ample resources to invest. Even then, projects can get stalled due to a lack of full inclusion with First Nations. The Indian Act has created an environment of political uncertainty without legal frameworks, property rights, competitive infrastructure, or the rule of law. Basic information may be unavailable to investors, and a labyrinth of federal bureaucracy prevents meaningful change. The Indian Act is not an environment for economic development. It is a desert.

Through this act, Canada essentially legislated First Nations governments out of the national economy. First Nations are now asserting their rights and finding ways back in.

A different path available since 2006

There are, however, alternative pieces of legislation which allow First Nations to opt out of parts of the Indian Act — notably the First Nations Fiscal Management Act, or FMA. This act, passed in April of 2006, creates strong First Nations institutions — an important right under UNDRIP.

First Nations can decide whether to participate in some, none or all of the institutions created by FMA. These include:

  • The First Nations Financial Management Board, or FMB, which supports First Nations with laws, policies, processes and capacity needed for good financial administration.
  • The Lands Advisory Board, which supports First Nations governments to re-establish control over their lands and resources through land codes.
  • The First Nations Tax Commission, which empowers First Nations governments to exercise their jurisdictions through fair and efficient taxation regimes.
  • The First Nations Finance Authority, which supports First Nations governments to access vital capital at a fair price.

Collectively, these institutions support First Nations governments to build ecosystems that nurture social and economic growth. They do so by supporting the strong, stable governance that attract investment.

Many of these institutions are similar to provincial bodies, but underpinned by Indigenous characteristics, understanding and control. More progress will be made as Indigenous institutions co-ordinate their efforts to further empower First Nations economic growth.

Time for a First Nations Infrastructure Institute

Canada should continue developing First Nation institutions by legislating the creation of a First Nations Infrastructure Institute to implement First Nations solutions that will attract the private sector. These investments are necessary to bridge the infrastructure gap and support growing an Indigenous economy.

The First Nations Financial Management Board, where I am CEO, is often asked to map out more of what is possible for First Nations. In response to this, FMB and FMA institutions have launched the RoadMap Project, a series of policy chapters on how to advance systemic change and economic reconciliation. These ideas will be a platform for more prosperity. Prosperity that reflects and respects the choices of each individual First Nation.

One of the major ideas in RoadMap is that First Nations need to be empowered to identify their comparative economic advantages, and put them into action. These advantages may include geography, geology, access to natural resources or labour supply, tourism, transportation, business clusters, research, education or emerging technologies.

By recognizing such advantages and providing the right supports, First Nations governments can attract investment on their own terms.

We know that strong Indigenous institutions and the right public sector supports will unlock Indigenous economies and benefit First Nations and all Canadians. Let’s take these clear steps to move reconciliation forward.

Georgie Hungerford, whose ancestry is Gwich’in from the Northwest and Yukon, and British, is CEO of the First Nations Financial Management Board. He has practiced Aboriginal and corporate law and is a chartered financial analyst.