Time to Move from Optimism to Action for Economic Reconciliation | Winnipeg Free Press

Jun. 24, 2024

by Harold Calla | Winnipeg Free Press (June 22, 2024)

Optimism is a powerful force for building a better future. It’s not a word that we’ve used often when talking about advancing the well-being of Indigenous Peoples in this country. But that’s starting to change.

Today, I feel optimistic about a growing movement to advance economic reconciliation across Canada –and I’m not alone. Newly released results from the 2024 Confederation of Tomorrow survey, conducted by the Environics Institute in partnership with the First Nations Financial Management Board and other organizations, shows that six in ten Canadians feel optimistic that meaningful progress toward reconciliation will happen in their lifetime. This sentiment is shared by Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike, but it is strongest among Indigenous respondents.

When such optimism exists, it is vital that leaders find ways to transform that spirit into tangible progress. Unless meaningful action occurs, optimism tends to fade away.

Last month, at the inaugural First Nations Economic Forum in Winnipeg, I saw both optimism and leaders transforming that spirit to action. Over two days, First Nations leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators from across Canada shared their insights and ideas for advancing economic development for First Nations. They identified priorities for our collaborative action over the coming months and years, and welcomed the opportunity to be a part of that journey. It was an action-oriented discussion by solutions-focused people: the kind of gathering that fuels a movement.

In my view, this forum was an historic discussion and planning exercise. I've been involved with efforts to unlock the Indigenous economy since 1987 and I've never before seen this kind of conversation and commitment. Thankfully, representatives of the federal government were there to witness it too.

The First Nations Economic Forum made it very clear that as Indigenous Peoples, we have the ability to harness immense economic power. Our next steps are about building on success.

First Nations that choose to work with the Indigenous-led First Nations Fiscal Management Act (FMA) institutions have so far borrowed $2.2 billion through the First Nations Finance Authority (FNFA), at competitive interest rates, to support their development. These Nations had projects financed by the FNFA after being certified by the FMB.  While working with the FMA institutions, they have seen their community well-being indexes rise, their own sources of revenue increase, and more Nations are becoming equity partners in major economic development projects.

By building on success, Indigenous Peoples and all Canadians have a real opportunity to advance economic reconciliation. Getting there means reducing federal government oversight in favour of First Nations empowerment.

The stakes are high. If we don’t bring First Nations fully into the mainstream economy, Canada will miss huge economic opportunities in areas such as critical minerals development. Resource development and other projects impacting our traditional lands won’t happen without full Indigenous consent and participation.

In order to be full partners in economic development projects, Canada needs to remove the barriers and close the gaps holding back Indigenous participation in the mainstream economy.

The Confederation of Tomorrow survey showed that Indigenous Peoples and non-Indigenous Canadians alike consider each of eight barriers to be moderate if not major obstacles to reconciliation. Inadequate infrastructure in remote communities and socio-economic inequalities top the list.

Improving access to capital for development projects, including infrastructure investments, is vital to taking down these barriers. The First Nations Economic Forum identified access to capital, increased supports for Indigenous businesses, and greater First Nations control of First Nations lands as priority areas for action.

The Government of Canada has committed to achieving a nation-to-nation relationship with First Nations. This means First Nations must have access to the same kinds of mechanisms that other forms of government have, including fiscal powers that are currently lacking.

First Nations and First Nation organizations are working together to create new opportunities and solutions to longstanding challenges. With additional substantive actions by the Government of Canada, we can all move beyond our colonial past and start to realize the true potential of the Indigenous economy and Canada.

Indigenous Peoples Day is a time to reflect on our individual role in advancing reconciliation, to consider how we can each be part of the solution. As the Confederation of Tomorrow survey shows, most people believe that individual Canadians have a role to play in advancing reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples.

Optimism and commitment are important building blocks in making meaningful progress on reconciliation. Notwithstanding, there are visible gaps in access to capital that will need to be filled that we will work together to solve. What we need now is increased action – meaningful, impactful, and bold action that reflects a true nation-to-nation relationship and enables the building of prosperity in Indigenous communities.