By ESG Analyst Alexis Legault-Toffoli
Canadian Geographic, “I am Mutehekau Shipu: A river’s journey to personhood in eastern Quebec,” April 8, 2022.
Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples is marked by a colonial legacy of dispossession and injustices. This relationship is quite complex with both historical and ongoing injustices and consequences that affect numerous spheres, notably political, social, economic, and psychological. It is only recently that the Canadian government began officially recognizing its wrongdoings and has initiated policies of reconciliation. One of the aspects of reconciliation that has recently gained prominence in the news and government institutions is economic reconciliation.
What is economic reconciliation?
To begin understanding economic reconciliation, we need to understand the context that has led to our current situation. While there is a long and complex history, a crucial element of this legacy, specifically for First Nation communities, is the Indian Act. Introduced in 1876, the Indian Act enforced numerous policies and mechanisms to first dispossess Indigenous peoples by restricting them to small reserves, and second exclude them from the economy. These government-imposed legislative barriers resulted in great economic inequalities for First Nation groups and similar policies affected Inuit and Metis populations. To illustrate, Indigenous peoples could not own land, sell certain goods, and access capital, grants, or loans. They faced discrimination, inadequate implementation of treaties, limited access to opportunities, broken promises, and problematic education such as with the residential school system. While many of these elements have changed over time, the economic repercussions of this history and existing administrative barriers are still prevalent today. As a result, Indigenous peoples are disproportionality working low-paying jobs, have higher unemployment rates, and lower education levels.
Having understood this context, economic reconciliation broadly aims to repair this broken relationship between Canada and Indigenous peoples in the economic sphere. Nevertheless, there is a lack of consensus over what this means when applied.
This article presents economic reconciliation as a direct response to these barriers to reintroduce Indigenous communities back into the economy as a way of redressing the deeply rooted consequences of the Indian Act. Note that this articulation of economic reconciliation applies a “development lens” and explicitly emphasizes “the inclusion of Indigenous people, communities and business in all aspects of economic activity.”
Likewise, this other article also frames it as an economic redress of historical injustices. Here, the goal is to achieve balance and equality for Indigenous peoples as mandated by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was ratified in Canada in 2021. They also mention the process of nurturing a sustained relationship of mutual respect and understanding with Indigenous communities as a core component of economic reconciliation.
Similarly, the Chamber of Commerce and the Bank of Canada made statements mentioning policies to increase access to capital, credit, jobs, education, and opportunities to enable Indigenous growth. Another key element is again the construction of a meaningful relationship to get informed consent before proceeding with projects.
These articulations are representative of how the dominant Canadian perspective understands economic reconciliation. They focus on reincluding Indigenous communities into the current economy on better terms. Some mention the importance of building meaningful relationships, but what does that mean and are these statements sufficient?
What about Indigenous views of Economic Reconciliation?
In an interview with Yann Allard-Tremblay, a professor researching Indigenous political theory at McGill University, he explained how these articulations can often simplify and ignore the required depth and extent of reconciliation.
Professor Allard-Tremblay mentioned that discussing economic reconciliation simply as Indigenous reintegration to correct past forms of exclusions results in giving “the economic system as it exists now a default position.” These approaches to reconciliation hardly question our economy; “to presume that our current economic system is the default is to assume a lot in economic reconciliation.” Canadians tend to think of the economy through a lens emphasizing ownership and the extraction of resources, which many Indigenous philosophies fundamentally disagree with. For instance, Haudenosaunee practices, as expressed through A Basic Call to Consciousness, emphasize the importance of maintaining a balance in our relationships with a network of kin that extends to humans and other-than-humans. Exploitation without balance and reciprocity, and complete ownership are generally incompatible with this view. I invite you to read more on Indigenous philosophies to be exposed to other ways of relating to the world which drastically transform our relationship to others and other-than-humans.
Assuming that economic reconciliation entails including Indigenous peoples in our current economy without transformation dismisses incompatible Indigenous values. Professor Allard-Tremblay notes that this approach makes it so that “Indigenous people need to do the work of rejoining something that exists which is itself not put into question.” Simply assuming that our current economy is the default means that Canada does not need to transform to accommodate Indigenous values. This puts into question whether economic reconciliation is true reconciliation or just another form of assimilation that forces Indigenous peoples to compromise their beliefs without the Canadian state’s equal participation in this process. Reconciliation is frequently a compromise, so we should question – where is Canada compromising? And is it fair? In this context, building a meaningful relationship would require Canada to fully participate in the process and be ready to compromise instead of dismissing Indigenous views that are incompatible with the economic status quo.
This article offers an Indigenous perspective as to what economic reconciliation means for them. The author emphasizes that economic reconciliation needs to be transformative and adaptive to each context. They argue that a true partnership and relationship would result in a new economy that puts into question many concepts that we take for granted such as wealth, well-being, sovereignty, and equality, instead of imposing a view onto Indigenous communities. Economic reconciliation needs to be flexible to “meet the specific needs, context, and unique worldview for each” community. Hence, the government’s approach cannot be a rigid policy applied everywhere equally; “economic reconciliation may be different for each nation.”
To add further nuance, Professor Allard-Tremblay notes that no community is uniform. There is a diversity of views and perspectives among Indigenous peoples who disagree on what economic reconciliation entails. To assume there is only one Indigenous position or that they all share the same values is to gravely oversimplify the picture.
For example, the Haisla Nation in BC has partnered with the Pembina Pipeline Corporation for the construction of a new pipeline that will economically benefit the Indigenous community. While other Indigenous scholars and communities might be critical of this decision and approach, Chief Crystal Smith has defended their nation’s position as pursuing economic reconciliation on their own terms.
Indigenous rights lawyer Kate Kempton, representing a coalition of Treaty 9 First Nations challenging a mining project, shows another Indigenous approach. Kempton focuses on claims of Indigenous sovereignty, specifically to argue for the equal authority of Indigenous communities to the government over economic developments in their territories. She argues that economic reconciliation would be “Band-Aiding over a broken body” unless it recognizes First Nations’ full decision-making authority over treaty lands. This approach, while not questioning the fundamentals of our economy, involves a full partnership that challenges political assumptions, such as Canadian sovereignty.
This diversity shows that even among Indigenous communities there is no homogeneous picture of what economic reconciliation means and how it should be achieved in practice. Therefore, there is no quick and easy answer to explain what economic reconciliation really is. There is a diversity of views that each show a side of the story and express specific concerns. There are currently numerous debates around the meaning of reconciliation and what form it should take. Whether economic reconciliation is true reconciliation or just another false promise is still to be determined. That is why it is crucial to stay informed and allow dialogue to continue so that we can reach more agreements that are suitable for each case and context.
Allard-Tremblay, Yann. 2023. Private Interview. McGill University.
Bank of Canada. “Economic Reconciliation: Supporting a Return to Indigenous Prosperity.” Accessed January 26, 2024. https://www.bankofcanada.ca/2022/05/economic-reconciliation-supporting-a-return-to-indigenous-prosperity/
Basic Call to Consciousness. 2005. Summertown, Tenn.: Native Voices.
Canadian Chamber of Commerce. “Policy Matters: Economic Reconciliation.” Accessed January 26, 2024. https://chamber.ca/policy-matters-economic-reconciliation/
Chief Crystal Smith. 2023.“Chief Crystal Smith: First Nations want an energy future, not eco-colonialism.” Vancouver is Awesome. https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/opinion/chief-crystal-smith-first-nations-want-an-energy-future-not-eco-colonialism-6394031?twclid=2-6o5axyx9unw55ssb0nwylqfic
Forester, Brett. 2023. “Exploring the rise of ‘economic reconciliation’ in Canada.” CBC News. https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/economic-reconciliation-indigenous-people-canada-1.6919721
Smith School of Business. “Indigenous Economic Reconciliation.” Queen’s University. Accessed January 26, 2024. https://smith.queensu.ca/centres/isf/resources/primer-series/indigenous-economic-reconciliation.php
Sxwpilemaát Siyám. 2019. “What is Economic Reconciliation?” Simon Fraser University. https://www.sfu.ca/ced/economic-reconciliation/transformative-storytelling/what-is-economic-reconciliation-.html
Vancouver Economic Commission. “Economic Reconciliation.” Accessed January 26, 2024. https://vancouvereconomic.com/economic-reconciliation/