Thank you, Mr. Chairman and committee members, for hearing our presentations today. As you've heard, my name is Sharon Stinson Henry. I'm the chief of the Chippewas of Rama First Nation, located in central Ontario. Gchi miigwech for having us here.
It is an honour to appear before the committee, together with Chief Louie, as a member of the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board. Our board chair, Chief Louie, has outlined to you the purpose of this advisory board, so I will move right to my segment of the presentation.
The challenges for first nations in pursuing economic development are well documented and have been the subject of various reports and studies. The barriers to sustainable economic development for first nations remain, despite reports that have clearly identified the barriers, along with recommendations to mitigate or eliminate them.
For example, in November 2003 the Auditor General of Canada issued a report to the House of Commons on economic development of first nations communities' institutional arrangements. The Auditor General reported that first nations continued to face barriers that increased their cost of doing business.
The following barriers were noted in the report: access to natural resources is restricted, which limits first nations opportunities; first nations have difficulty accessing capital necessary for economic development; keeping track of the requirements of different federal government programs is a substantial burden on first nations; federal officials, when reviewing projects, are reluctant to take risks, and in particular, project approval processes do not move at the speed of business; program criteria are difficult to adapt to large-scale, complex economic development projects; Indian Act processes are burdensome; and resources are lacking to build institutional arrangements in a timely way, institutional arrangements being mainly formal and informal organizations and functions that structure economic interaction.
The report noted that the approval times for projects on first nations land were significantly longer than off-reserve development. It cited an example from the study; in this case a project took well over twice as long to complete on reserve compared to development with a neighbouring, non-aboriginal community.
Board chair Chief Louie has addressed the topic of the First Nations Land Management Act in his remarks very thoroughly; I would add, however, that while there are great opportunities available under FNLMA for first nations to take back rights and responsibilities regarding their land base, the act is not sufficiently resourced.
We have heard from first nations leaders that once they have entered into the First Nations Land Management Act, the federal government does not provide adequate resources to support capacity-building at the first nation level to take advantage of opportunities.
Furthermore, the act should provide first nations with full control over lands and access. For example, the act should ensure that first nations have the ability to charge gate access fees or tolls, etc., for passing over and being on lands that are owned by a first nation.
In terms of case studies, as Chief Louie has noted, the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board has undertaken three first nation case studies. Rama First Nation, my nation, is providing one of these case studies, along with Membertou and the Osoyoos Indian Band.
In Rama's study we are considering the additional costs of first nations economic development through an examination of two key Rama projects. The first one is the development of Casino Rama, Ontario's most successful commercial casino, which is located in Rama First Nation. The second one is our joint venture with other first nation partners in the St. Eugene Golf Resort and Casino of the Rockies, located on the St. Mary's reserve just outside of Cranbook, British Columbia.
Rama's case study has noted several barriers that are inherent in the Indian Act, which I will touch on briefly.
With respect, Mr. Chairman and committee members, the Indian Act is an outdated piece of colonial legislation that does not meet the needs of first nations. First nations do not have an ability to move swiftly in developing their lands as a result of the restrictions that arise under the Indian Act and the red tape that comes with them.
This often renders economic development out of reach for first nations in Canada. One of the most problematic barriers in the Indian Act is the requirement that first nations must first surrender or designate lands before they can be developed. This requirement to give our interests in land over to the federal government in order to develop them is a major problem.
For example, Rama First Nation's development of the highly successful Casino Rama was slowed by the Indian Act requirements to surrender the lands or, more specifically, to “designate” them, which included a requirement to undertake a community referendum. This lengthy and complex process added time and cost to our transaction.
Rama experienced similar challenges because of the Indian Act restrictions on land management in the St. Eugene Golf Resort and casino project. In that project the Indian Act requirements for designations increased the complexity of the transaction because we weren't dealing with the acquisition of fee simple interests in real property, but rather a series of sub-leasehold interests that were ultimately subject to the land leases granted by INAC.
The St. Eugene's leasehold structure also impacted the process by which Rama took security for our additional financial contributions, because Indian Affairs needed to consent to the mortgages that were granted. First nations cannot use their lands as collateral against loans to support economic development, and the federal government does not provide first nations with adequate financial support for economic development.
Rama has felt the impact of these provisions in our economic development ventures. We have noticed that the banks are more concerned about adequate cash flows than assets, when assets are located on first nation reserves. This has resulted in increased costs that for many other first nations would likely pose an insurmountable barrier.
With regard to environmental management agreements, we believe that respect for the environment is central to effective first nations governance. Sustainable economic development for first nations depends on our access to and control over land and natural resources and on a clean and healthy environment.
However, there are few federal regulations in effect to protect the environment on reserves. As a result, residents on first nations reserves do not have the same environmental protection that other Canadians do. The federal government needs to properly resource first nations to deal with our environmental management needs, including providing appropriate financial, technical, and other resources.
With regard to additions to reserves, the additions to reserves process, or ATR, is complicated, time-consuming, and very expensive. As Chief Louie noted in his recent remarks to a Senate committee, ATR is federal policy, not law. This needs to be changed, as Chief Louie noted. The ATR should be replaced with legislation that must be based on the assumption that Canada actually wants to add lands to reserves because it is in the long-term interest of first nations, Canada, and indeed the provinces and municipalities to do so. Not only does the first nation have to deal with the federal government in the ATR process, but we must also engage with local municipalities, which can create additional roadblocks. We need to have processes in place to help us resolve disputes between first nations and our municipal stakeholders.
Our overall recommendations on first nation land management issues are the federal government needs to focus on how it can support first nations in developing their own lands and resources, as opposed to being a gatekeeper that stands in the way of opportunity. We must be creative to find solutions; for example, the crown should provide sovereign guarantees to support development. The federal government must give rights and responsibilities to manage first nation land issues over to first nation leaders and must properly resource first nations to grow their capacity to be effective land managers.
Economic development is not just about large-scale development by the first nation; it is also about supporting our first nation entrepreneurs in pursuing their goals.
There is ministerial control over the lives of first nation members under the Indian Act from cradle to grave. This needs to change. The Indian Act barriers to individuals developing their land on-reserve are similar to barriers for first nation development, and these must be addressed.
Lack of natural resources revenue sharing is a critical issue for first nations in economic development. Resource revenue sharing with first nations must be fair and appropriate. There are first nations living in poverty while multinational corporations benefit from their lands.
Finally, the process to resolve land claims, be they comprehensive claims or specific claims, is too slow. There is much work to be done to eliminate these barriers.
First nations in Canada have much to offer as we build a stronger nation. Together we can do this. However, we require respect and support. Let us walk together to make Canada stronger and more competitive as we move forward into the 21st century.
Again, gchi miigwech. Thank you for the opportunity to address you today.