A new generation of First Nations leaders are showing us how to make the capitalist system work for the entire community
I was standing with the Chief on a snowy vacant lot on the outskirts of Regina. Bellerose was taking a few of us on a tour of the Nation’s properties; they had recently acquired three quarter sections of land on the east boundary of the city, adjacent to the CN/CP rail intersection. The property was new reserve lands, designated for light industrial purposes.
Bellerose described his new future in great detail, explaining how far they had come and how difficult the journey had been. They’d had to jump mindless bureaucratic hurdles and overcome prejudice, internal fears and bickering while mastering the complicated and (often deceitful) worlds of business and finance.
But it was all worth it. His vision includes a future industrial park, gas station, medical centre and a staging area for First Nation aggregate – used in construction and which the local reserves have in abundance. He explained the need for ‘turnstiles’; ongoing revenues from productive business operations that provide much needed ‘own-source’ revenues for the community.
Summing up – and giving me that famous sly smile of his – he said “I’m not stopping until there’s a Tim Horton’s on the corner”. And who would doubt him? Certainly not me.
There are similar stories in Alberta and British Columbia. Inspired leaders, like Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation near Edmonton, are setting a new standard in First Nations’ governance, while challenging their people and the rest of us to join them in achieving their goal of financial and cultural independence.
It is difficult for many of us to appreciate how many extra obstacles there are for First Nation communities to overcome in conducting normal business operations. Over the centuries the system has built a spider’s web of limitations, regulations and other challenges which they must clear before they can begin to close the gap with Canadian standards of living.
While not underestimating the problems that continue to plague First Nation reserves (they have dangerous levels of drug and alcohol abuse, sub-standard infrastructure and high suicide rates), it is remarkable how positively these leaders view the future.
Meanwhile, they’re teaching us all some very valuable lessons in how to make the capitalist system work for the entire community.
In a global capitalist system, where inequality is growing and many are falling through the cracks of a merciless market system, First Nation leaders in Canada are changing the game, uniting business growth directly with advances in community wellbeing.
Unlike normal commerce, deliberate steps are taken to consider the social impact of business and investment decisions.
Bellerose speaks of responsible growth, of taking concrete steps to ensure that these new opportunities don’t do more harm than good. Bottom line, they must prove they provide positive benefits for the entire community.
As someone who is actively engaged with business, it’s strange and very refreshingly for me to hear First Nation leaders emphasise the importance of linking investments directly to improving the mental and physical health of their members.
Recent developments and favourable Supreme Court judgments have changed the world for First Nation peoples in Canada: they now have rights and entitlements that can open doors.
A new reality is emerging and a sense that First Nations can control their own destiny and escape the dead hand of Canada’s paternalistic Federal bureaucracies.
Many are fearful of the ‘Indian problem’ in Western Canadian cities, seeing the growth of Aboriginal populations as problematic. The reality is – left unattended – it could well become a larger societal problem.
But we can all take heart from the positive steps being taken by a new generation of First Nation leaders across the country and remember that we have much to learn from our Aboriginal brothers and sisters as they challenge the norms of conventional capitalism and tackle – head on – centuries of prejudice and dependency.
Taken together a remarkable First Nations’ renaissance is developing. It is giving birth not only to improved living conditions on reserves but also to a new more inclusive commonwealth for us all in Canada. With the right help it’s going to change our world – for the better.
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