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What to do when aboriginal economies and environmental regulations conflict?

peter goffin

Site of the now-rejected Kanata gravel mine on land owned by the Elizabeth Metis Nation. Satellite imagery via Google.

Site of the now-rejected Kanata gravel mine on land owned by the Elizabeth Metis Nation. Satellite imagery via Google.

A project that would have provided hundreds of Metis with jobs and affordable housing was quashed on Tuesday, with a 7-6 vote by the Edmonton City Council. And though it may not seem so at first glance, that decision was likely for the best. While the project’s benefits were appealing, there were some deeper problems with the proposal, especially its environmental toll. But whether you agree with the Edmonton councillors’ decision or not, the case raises a host of important questions: how to address the pressing social and economic needs of Canada’s aboriginal communities, for instance, and how to balance economic prosperity with environmental sustainability. These are thorny, complicated, politically charged issues, so it’s important to pay attention to decisions like this and how they’re getting made.

Here’s the background: Kanata Metis Cultural Enterprises Ltd., which is owned by the Elizabeth Metis community, proposed a gravel mining operation to be started up on land it bought in 2009.  According to  the  corporation’s proposal, the mine would have been operated for three to five years, created up to 300 jobs for members of the Metis nation, and yielded 1.7 million tonnes of gravel, the profits of which would have been used to fund Metis-focused social programs such as building affordable housing.

Opposition to the mine sprung up because the proposed site was right beside the North Saskatchewan River and, according to local conservationists, better left untouched. The North Saskatchewan River Valley Conservation Society posited that a gravel mine in the river valley could damage nearby wetlands and kick up large amounts of dust, harmful to area residents.

The argument against the mine was bolstered by the fact that the Edmonton Municipal Development Plan of 2010 specifically prohibits the harvesting of resources in the North Saskatchewan River Valley.

The task of the Edmonton City Council was to determine whether an exception could be made to the prohibition. Normally such a decision would be based on the potential value of the proposed project. But this particular case gave councillors much more to think about, as it raised questions about environmental protection, self-government, and aboriginal land rights (The Kanata Metis appeared to have taken on the role of standing in for Metis people across Canada, the term “our people” having been used frequently by proponents of the mine).

At a very basic level, the case could be made that Kanata Metis Cultural Enterprises should be allowed to mine the land because they own it. And although the city has prohibited activities such as mining in that area, the question of land ownership and use is complicated when it involves Aboriginal groups, self-governance being a stated priority of the Canadian government’s relationship with Aboriginal peoples. Although the mining proposal isn’t a cut and dried analogue, aboriginal communities’ autonomy is part of the mix of issues here.

Another major argument in favour of granting the Kanata Metis corporation exclusive mining rights to the area, was that the Metis nation, like many Aboriginals in Canada, are in need of assistance, and owed some form of compensation.

The 2006 census reported that the Metis employment rate amongst adults was 74.6 percent. Although this was a four percent improvement over 2001’s figures, it still placed Metis behind the non-Aboriginal population, whose employment rate was 81.6 percent. The 2006 census also reported that, as of the previous year, the median income for Metis was $5,000 lower than it was for non-Aboriginals. This inequity was even greater in Alberta, where the median Metis income was $6,600 lower than non-Aboriginals’.

Evidently a job-creation project with a focus on Albertan Metis deserves some thought, especially if it is also going to contribute funding to housing and training programs, as the Kanata Metis corporation said the mine would have.

But while the local Metis population would have benefited from the gravel mine, how should that be weighed against the environmental costs?

While campaigning in favour of the mine, Archie Collins, a councillor of the Elizabeth Metis settlement, described the Metis people as “stewards of the land,” a cliché about indigenous peoples often invoked by interested parties, aboriginal or otherwise, that portrays aboriginals as inherently protective and understanding of the earth and environment.

There are already conservation laws to which aboriginals are exempt because of their cultures’ unique relationships to nature. Hunting and fishing regulations, for example, do not apply to aboriginal Canadians, on the grounds that their cultural traditions, which include hunting and fishing, supersede Canadian laws.

Gravel mining, however, is not part of the Metis cultural tradition. It would have been undertaken only as a commercial opportunity, which makes it quite different from the hunting and fishing examples. Collins’s “stewards of the land” image, while romantic, does not exactly jibe with digging up a river’s watershed in search of gravel.

There is no doubt that the Kanata Metis Cultural Enterprises mine would have brought some needed material prosperity for Edmonton-area Metis. There is even less doubt that the Metis — like all Canadian aboriginal peoples — are owed some manner of reparations after a long history of oppression and marginalization. But there are better ways to help than the North Saskatchewan River gravel mine. There are definitely less environmentally damaging options. In the end Edmonton City Council made a tough choice, but it was the right one.

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