The federal government finances support for the accumulation of consultation procedures

For Angel Ransom, large amounts of paperwork, short deadlines, overstretched staff and a large number of project proposals lead to consultation fatigue.

These challenges can leave indigenous nations overwhelmed and without “equal partners” during the environmental and impact assessment process of development projects.

As a result, the federal government is recognizing the call from Indigenous leaders for more jurisdiction over major developments by funding better Indigenous participation in Crown consultation processes.

The Crown is constitutionally obliged to consult indigenous people before approving any development in their home countries by industries such as mining, construction and forestry. The federal government is offering up to $11 million in funding through its Indigenous Capacity Support Program to help First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders develop the capacity to sufficiently consider projects and respond to impact assessments in their territories.

Now, the Impact Assessment Agency is opening a funding stream for “strategic opportunities” to help Indigenous nations prepare to tackle projects in the future.

Money is also available for “program partners” to help indigenous organizations, such as tribal councils, develop the capacity to produce technical maps and studies of their home countries. There are also funding sources to organize events to share knowledge, experience and best practices around consultation.

The program addresses a key gap that prevents some Indigenous groups from fully participating in consultations, said Ransom, senior vice president of environmental services for the Coalition of First Nations Major Projects, an organization founded to help British Columbia First Nations respond to development projects.

“There has never been core funding for natural resource management at the community level, but we are expected to participate and consult on these processes. That’s the other way around,” he said. “There are projects underway and you want our time, energy, information and consent, but you are not going to fund them. That is a system of failure.”

Section 35 of the Constitutional Law requires governments to consult indigenous peoples before developing projects on their traditional lands. That consultation process often requires indigenous nations’ perspectives to be presented through paperwork, which some are not prepared to handle.

“If we’re not at the negotiating table, if we’re not given all the information we need, how are we supposed to give consent? And if you don’t have consent, you will suffer a negative reaction.”

Last year, several First Nations wrote to the Canadian Impact Assessment Agency to say they could not adequately participate in consultation on a road to the Ring of Fire mining region in northern Ontario. Last month, Ontario bosses called for a moratorium on mining development after the number of mining concessions in their territory soared.

Robert-Falcon Ouellette, an Indigenous political science researcher at the University of Ottawa, said the funding could mean nations can pay for consultation work.

“A lot of First Nations communities don’t have the financial resources to participate, but everyone wants to talk to them, consult with them,” Ouellette said. “Often, [consultation] it becomes voluntary work, making it difficult for people who could have the expertise to fully participate in impact evaluations, and [make] making sure things are done the right way.”

Ian Ketcheson, vice-president of Canada’s Indigenous Relations Sector Impact Assessment Agency, said this work has a deadline. During assessments, Indigenous communities are typically given 30-day deadlines to respond to updates from the Crown or developers.

“Often, out of necessity, this pushes nations to hire external consultants and lawyers because they are under time pressure and cannot afford to spend much time building the capacity of their own community. members,” Ketcheson said. “But we constantly hear from the nations we work with, and from consultants and advisors, that this is work best done by the nation itself.”

The support comes as jurisdiction over major development projects shifts from Ottawa to the provinces. The Impact Assessment Act of 2019 created the Impact Assessment Agency to evaluate the environmental effects of projects such as Highway 413 and the Ring of Fire mining region in northern Ontario. Last year, a Supreme Court of Canada ruling found the law “largely unconstitutional.”

While the new funding program is a step to address a gap in consultation, Carleton University Indigenous governance professor Gabriel Maracle said more needs to be done.

“It would be great to see this program get permanent funding,” Maracle said. “Often, these initiatives will have a limited funding window, and with changes in government mandates, programs are ruled out. “It’s incredibly important to ensure there is funding as this program changes and evolves, and to ensure it has some longevity.”

Robert-Falcon Ouellette, a political science researcher at the University of Ottawa, says the funding could boost business. Photo by Isaac Phan Nay for Canada’s National Observer.

Ouellette said when Indigenous communities are better equipped to work with developers, more projects move forward with proper consultation. “This is a strong investment by the federal government and, frankly, it’s very good for business.”

Having Indigenous nations as partners when moving forward with projects on Indigenous lands could help developers cut through bureaucracy more efficiently, Ransom added. He pointed to community opposition leading to project disruption or delays as the risks of not obtaining nations’ consent and consultation. “We know our lands better. We know where a project should or should not go,” he said.

“If we’re not at the negotiating table, if we’re not given all the information we need, how are we supposed to give consent? And if you don’t have consent, you will suffer a backlash,” Ransom added.

For Ketcheson, during her time at the impact assessment agency, she has seen projects develop more sustainably and smartly through Indigenous-led assessments.

The projects have even been redesigned to reflect “high-quality” input from Indigenous nations using their knowledge and better data, resulting in healthier territories and harvest areas, Ketcheson said.

“It’s really just looking at it through a new lens,” he added.

Matteo Cimellaro and Isaac Phan Nay / National Observer of Canada / Local Journalism Initiative

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