Lawrence Solomon: Why environmentalists are the losers in Supreme Court land ruling

(July 3, 2014) Natives do not view Canada’s north as a vast theme park.

Chief Roger William, right, of the Xeni Gwet'in First Nation, is flanked by chiefs and other officials as he pauses while speaking during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation, granting it land title to 438,000-hectares of land on Thursday June 26, 2014. The Canadian Press / Darryl Dyck.

Chief Roger William, right, of the Xeni Gwet’in First Nation, is flanked by chiefs and other officials as he pauses while speaking during a news conference in Vancouver, B.C., after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the Tsilhqot’in First Nation, granting it land title to 438,000-hectares of land on Thursday June 26, 2014. The Canadian Press / Darryl Dyck.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post

First Nations are big winners in the Supreme Court decision last week, which decided that natives, and not provinces, will obtain secure title to vast areas of now disputed land. But resource companies are winners, too, in that they’ll soon be able to powwow with clear owners of the land, rather than endlessly hold “meaningful consultations” with the myriad stakeholders demanding says in developments.

The only clear losers are the natives’ environmental allies, who helped them thwart proposed resource developments that would have compromised native control over their land. Now that the environmentalists have served their purpose, the native groups can tell them to take a hike.

Northern Quebec’s James Bay hydroelectric project — the environmental pariah of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s — provides the script. In 2002, after decades of fighting the Quebec government’s mega development plans, the Grand Council of the Crees signed “The Peace of the Braves,” an agreement with the Quebec government that gave the Cree $3.5-billion over 50 years as their share of revenue from mining, logging and hydroelectric development. The Cree got something else, too — joint management of the resource industries, and the respect that accompanied it.

Environmentalists called this deal a sellout. Cree Chief Mathew Coon Come, whose anti-James Bay leadership catapulted him to become the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, called it a boon that would protect his people’s right to self-determination while providing revenue from their land. Today the Cree culture is strong, life expectancy is long, and their population is booming. The Cree not only remain a hunting people but also now run construction and forest operations, have their own airline, control their own destiny and have no need of their former allies at Greenpeace and Sierra Club, who once-upon-a-time were so useful in helping them secure the means for development.

The Mackenzie Valley script is similar. With help from environmentalists who wanted to preserve (i.e. freeze) the natives’ way of life, the natives of the Mackenzie Valley in the 1970s beat back a proposed pipeline that would have shipped natural gas from the Arctic to Alberta and beyond. By the early 2000s, after various land claims were settled, aboriginal groups extracted for themselves a one-third interest in the $16-billion pipeline, which in 2011 received the regulatory approvals needed to proceed.

By this point, however, the script had taken an unexpected turn. Because the shale gas revolution in the U.S. was flooding the continent with natural gas, prices more than halved, delaying the need for Arctic gas indefinitely and making the pipeline unnecessary. To the dismay of the Mackenzie Valley aboriginals, the delays in settling land claims had lost for them a bonanza. The winners, instead, were native peoples in the United States, many of whose reservations have proven to be lucrative oil and gas shale plays. Thanks to these and other resource developments, and to the American Indians’ ability to negotiate for themselves royalties from developers 50% higher than the rate the federal government manages, America’s Indians now land some $1-billion a year in resource royalties. For good measure, the Indians give the developers short five-year leases, to encourage them to get the goods out of the ground while the getting’s good: 94% of Indian leases are producing energy, and thus royalties, compared to 48% of the typical 10-year-term federal leases.

The lesson for Canada’s natives, and Canada’s governments, is clear: Interminable delays in settling land ownership, and in getting on with developing our natural resources, can be ruinous for the energy developments that both ultimately need and want to promote prosperity. The Supreme Court decision has clarified ownership as no previous court has done, clearing the decks for the parties to resolve the less fundamental remaining issues. As the Mackenzie Valley natives discovered, Canada’s oil and gas are depletable resources in more ways than one — they can be here today, gone tomorrow, if not first exploited wisely.

The lesson for environmentalists should also be clear. Natives do not share their vision of Canada’s north as a vast theme park, set aside as a picturesque habitat for moose, bear, caribou and Indians for the benefit of white men on eco-tours. Natives desire development on their own terms and will use their land as they see fit. Courtesy of the Supreme Court decision, that development will now come sooner than later.

Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com.


This article was quoted by Harderblog (a trade news blog from a Pacific perspective for the softwood lumber industry):

As Big as the Beetle?

July 7, 2014

According to RBC Capital Markets, a Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruling on aboriginal land title in B.C. may end up having as severe an impact on fibre supply as the mountain pine beetle (MPB). In this morning’s Province here, analyst Paul Quinn warns the impact of the SCC ruling could eventually equal the estimated 710 million cubic metres of commercially valuable pine wiped out by the MPB epidemic. Quinn advises that while 94% of land in B.C. is currently classified as provincial Crown land, aboriginal title will eventually likely make up the majority. He believes the larger forest companies are most at risk, “since they have long-established tenure rights and, therefore, have required fewer First Nation partnerships to secure timber supply.”

That warning would seem to stand in stark contrast to this opinion piece in The Financial Post, which declares that “resource companies are winners too” in the SCC ruling. According to Lawrence Solomon of the Urban Renaissance Institute, resource companies will “soon be able to powwow with clear owners of the land, rather than endlessly hold ‘meaningful consultations’ with the myriad stakeholders demanding says in developments.”

“The lesson for environmentalists should also be clear. Natives do not share their vision of Canada’s north as a vast theme park, set aside as a picturesque habitat for moose, bear, caribou and Indians for the benefit of white men on eco-tours. Natives desire development on their own terms and will use their land as they see fit. Courtesy of the Supreme Court decision, that development will now come sooner than later.”
– Lawrence Solomon, Urban Renaissance Institute

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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