First Nations Economic Development Explained
Lessons from the man who literally wrote the book on Indigenous Economic Development.
Let me introduce my second guest of this week, Darwin Hanna. Darwin is a lawyer focused on Aboriginal law, an author, and an adjunct professor teaching at Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia.
I had the pleasure of taking a course called First Nations Economic Development with Mr. Hanna. It was one of the most memorable courses I took, because the information felt so relevant. During my time at the University of the Fraser Valley, we would regularly discuss the challenges facing Indigenous communities. Low education rates, poverty, criminal activity, alcohol use, drug use, poor housing, and high birth rates. It paints a pretty bleak picture, and throughout my education in criminology it didn’t feel like there were any real solutions.
That is, until I attended law school. Then, the solutions seemed so obvious. Business law, tax law, contract law, and First Nations economic development all provided a new path forward. If Indigenous communities can carefully develop their local economies again, they can begin to bring in the revenue necessary to improve much of the problems they face.
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Now, that all sounds great - but it comes with many challenges and these are the topics we learned about in the course. What happens when companies want to come through their reserve land, and the First Nation community doesn’t want the development? How does the Indian Act impact potential developments? Where do treaties fit into the mix? How do rural communities develop in comparison to urban communities like Musqueam? With climate change, how do impoverished Indigenous communities approach potential resource extraction projects?
The answer is First Nations communities deserve the right to self-determination. They deserve the respect of deciding whether they want certain developments, whether they want to remain under the Indian Act. Indigenous communities have lacked the freedom to choose since colonization. This choice, in legal terms, is often referred to as “Free, Prior & Informed Consent”.
This idea, this concept - terrifies conservative types. The argument is a principle like this will halt any national developments (AKA: pipelines). The fear is that 7/10 First Nation communities will support a development, but those 3 will ruin it for everyone else. Now, Darwin will be the first to say that with this legal tool - none of those fears have come to fruition.
Darwin Hanna is a founding partner at Callison Hanna, and he works regularly with Indigenous communities to help them reach agreements with industries and various levels of government to help give them economic prosperity. He listens to the community members, and leadership and seeks to bring about the best possible deal for them. As a lawyer, he advises them on where the law stands, and how to best maneuver the landscape. At the same time, his firm supports the professional development of other young Indigenous lawyers. More recently, he literally wrote the book on First Nations Economic Development and the legal issues that exist.
This book is an incredible resource for any Indigenous community interested in developing economically. It guides the reader through challenges in case law, the strategies communities have applied, legal instruments that can be helpful and so much more. It gives First Nation’s people the information they need to begin to make positive change in an effective way.
As I mentioned, economic development only became a topic I was aware of through my course with Darwin Hanna, and a course with Camden Hutchison. I know that the BC Assembly of First Nations is aware of it, because when I was writing my paper on the topic I found their Black Book Toolkit. A document that literally walks the reader through best practices and common pitfalls.
From my understand, and my research there is a healthy process for communities to start to develop. First, the leaders must consult the community members. This aspect is easy to overlook and underestimate. Some leaders think they have it all figured out, and perhaps they also think that progress has been slow. With their leadership they believe they can fix the problems, but this is dangerous. Why? Because the community needs to be ON BOARD. They need to be excited and eager to see the intended change. Consultation allows the leader to understand the problems in a deeper way, and for community members to understand what the proposed solutions might be.
For example, say the leader thinks it would be a great idea to have more forestry in the community. They want to see their community members cutting down trees, processing timber, and driving the trucks down the mountain and to distribution centres. Ain’t that swell? Well, if the leader doesn’t tell the community member about this, when all those jobs become available - the members may not have the skills, training, or work experience to fill those fantastic positions. Further, this results in external individuals filling the position and a lack of professional development for members.
The second step for leaders of a community is to develop a plan and share that with internal members of the community, and external stakeholders. I know vision statements, and mission statements mean very little to people when they’re on some businesses website - but they do actually matter. It can be incredibly motivating for members of a community to see the long term plan. Just like in a relationship, you want to know that you are going to make progress in a good direction. Communities will always have problems, the key piece is having an inspiring solution that people can get on board with.
In municipalities, we call these “Official Community Plans” (OCP’s). In First Nation communities these are called an “Comprehensive Community Plan”, or an “Economic Development Plan”. This is a document that community members can read to find out what the 5, 10 and 25 year goals are. For external stakeholders, they can find out where they might fit into the picture. For example, say the community is only interested in eco-tourism businesses. An oil company may read the plan, and realize that this community isn’t interested in what they have to offer, and be on their merry way.
Once these steps are taken, the real work begins, as the community has to begin to execute the plan. This is where legal tools can be useful. One that fascinates me is economic development corporations. Why? Because it protects the band members and leadership from legal liability, but it also separates business and politics. The leadership of the corporation usually consists of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), staff and a board of directors. The board can be comprised of experts in law, business, and finance. Politics is huge in many Indigenous communities. Separating business from politics not only helps those within the corporation stay on task, but also increases confidence for external stakeholders and other businesses.
Once developments begin to bear fruit, the proceeds or profits can be reinvested into the community. Ideally, this means more social programs, greater educational opportunities, protection of the environment, further community planning and more investment in professional development. This is where much of the work begins to pay off, and members can feel genuinely supported.
Recently, I became a council member for my community with the hopes I could make positive change. Many members may not know that this is the framework I bring, but I’m incredibly grateful for individuals like Darwin Hanna for sharing their knowledge and expertise. Knowledge is power, and he has given me the power to make a difference for the members of Chawathil First Nation. It is hard to quantify or truly understand the impact Darwin has on people, because he gives communities at a high-level the tools to thrive.
I deeply respect Mr. Hanna, and the work he does to share valuable legal insights and information. Through his teaching at Allard, to his book on development - he is enacting positive change. To listen to the full podcast with Darwin, visit the Bigger Than Me Podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or YouTube. Don’t forget you can also support the podcast by forwarding an episode to a friend, rating the podcast on your podcast app or hitting the like button on YouTube.