Canada: What's Happening North Of 60?

Rob Miller and Sarah Bird recently travelled to Yellowknife to chair and speak at Insight's North of 60 Forum: Unlocking the True Economic Potential of the North. The conference entailed an enthusiastic discussion of economic opportunities in the North, some of the hurdles facing Aboriginal communities in accessing those opportunities, and paths forward. So what did we hear?

Welcome and Prayer
Chief Sangris, Chief of the Yelloknives Dene (Dettah)

Chief Edward Sangris opened the conference with a welcome to the traditional territory of the Yellowknives Dene (Dettah). He talked about the historic examples of "engagement gone wrong". One of the three mines in his territory pays only $125,000 a year in royalties to his community, and his people who work there still hold shovels – they do not participate in management. In his view, IBAs are always called a "win-win", but they can't be called a "win-win" until there are some implementation wins. Companies always show up with development proposals and "romancing their stones" with lots of promises, but relationship building takes years of dedication and commitment.

Chief Sangris talked about the NWT philosophy of government – government based on consensus, not centralized decision making. Consensus government and respectful engagement includes understanding what Aboriginal consent means: for the Yellowknives, there is an area that cannot be developed because of its cultural and environmental importance, yet despite this, his Nation is under constant pressure to accept development proposals for the area.

Chief Sangris' message for the conference was clear: there is a business case for meaningful and respectful engagement with First Nations in project development, and his community has open doors for discussion provided that people understand that development of resources must be balances with cultural and environmental protection.

A Message from the Government of the NWT
Wally Schumann, Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Minister of Transportation

Aboriginal communities will be the primary drivers behind the development of the NWT economy into the future. Economic development can bring positive outcomes like increased housing quality, improved access to education and services, and enhanced quality of life through supporting health and social programs. But a reliable infrastructure network (including transportation) is a key foundation on which to build our economy. Infrastructure and transportation are key goals for the current government.

Aboriginal Capacity Building and Respectful Engagement
Chief Gladys Norwegian, Jean Marie River First Nation
Rob Miller, Miller Titerle + Company LLP

Rob Miller had the honour of presenting with our friend Chief Norwegian. She spoke of Jean Marie River First Nation's plans for economic development now and in the future, and provided an overview of their business plan. She shared some of the issues and challenges facing her community as it continues on its economic development journey, and identified remoteness, size, the need for infrastructure and the need for funding as barriers to successful economic development in her community.

Rob spoke on respectful engagement with Aboriginal communities in a post-Tsilhqot'in world. He highlighted seven elements or trends of respectful engagement today when it is done right:

  • acknowledges and seeks Indigenous consent;
  • focuses on evolving consent as opposed to static consent;
  • recognizes Indigenous resource ownership through taxation;
  • harnesses the power of the Indigenous economy and access to capital;
  • creates room for the collective;
  • respects Indigenous jurisdiction through co-management; and
  • benefits from Indigenous current and traditional knowledge.

Contact Beth Young if you would like a copy of Rob's presentation.

Financing Aboriginal Ownership of Industry Projects
Sarah Bird, Miller Titerle + Company LLP
Pawan Chugh, NWT Business Development Investment Corporation

Pawan spoke to the importance of building economic capacity in communities North of 60 and explained how NWT BDIC's mandate is to provide the financial tools that people need to succeed. Pawan gave a brief history of the NWT BDIC – a GNWT Crown Corporation – and stated that it supports the objectives of the GNWT by:

  • providing financial assistance to businesses;
  • making investments in business; and
  • encouraging the creation and development of NWT businesses.

Sarah set out the key elements of project finance:

  • the raising of finance;
  • on a limited recourse basis (loss can't exceed initial equity);
  • for developing capital-intensive projects;
  • borrower is a project-specific entity;
  • security is a series of contractual relationships; and
  • repayment of the financing by the borrower will be dependent on the internally generated cash flows of the project.

She took the group through a common structure for project finance transactions, and discussed the business and lending risks that are top of mind to lenders. For First Nations, one important consideration will be the land on which the project will be located. Is it reserve land? Is it land to which a settlement agreement applies? These are questions that should be answered and considered before approaching lenders for money. North of 60 should start considering whether a project on their land could be successful with project finance. Various lenders in Canada are looking to place money –the key is to maintain the integrity of the project finance structure and work with experienced, reliable partners.

Contact Raquel Brizzi if you would like a copy of Sarah's presentation.

The Current Economy
Mike Bradshaw, Executive Director of NWT Chamber of Conference
Tom Hoefer, Executive Director of NWT + Nunavut Chamber of Mines

Mike Bradshaw highlighted some of the major challenges facing the NWT:

  • losing small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs): NWT has lost 750 SMEs over last 4 years;
  • business confidence: 65% of SMEs think that the regional economy will shrink over next 12 months;
  • flat investment: development dollars are not growing in the region;
  • shrinking population: population is important for important for NWT because federal funding is linked to population, and the NWT's growth factor is a laggard compared to other jurisdictions;
  • labour availability: NWT needs 28,000 workers in next 15 years (assuming no net growth), 75% of which will require advanced education; and
  • tax leakage: NWT does not collect T4 income tax from fly-in, fly-out workers, even though those workers rely on NWT's infrastructure.

So how do we connect the dots and address these economic issues? According to Mike:

  • streamline regulatory processes;
  • develop infrastructure, including transportation corridors;
  • settle land claims;
  • develop a unique selling proposition for NWT in mining industry – what brings investment here?
  • lower the cost of electricity through new technology such as variable speed generation;
  • implement aggressive population growth incentives (NWT get $30k a year from feds for every resident); and
  • revise the Tax Act to address tax leakage through fly-in, fly-out.

And according to Tom:

  • increase certainty by addressing land ownership issues (including Aboriginal title) and improving regulatory processes;
  • improve infrastructure to develop access;
  • lower the cost of doing business in NWT;
  • build NWT workforce capacity through training and education; and
  • improve communication to citizens, governments and investors.

Most importantly, both speakers identified the need for self-sufficiency of NWT, and to eliminate the narrative that "the federal government will always be here to rescue us".

Collaborative Initiatives with Aboriginal Communities for Resource Development
Chief Edward Sangris, Yellowknives Dene First Nation

Chief Sangris spoke passionately about the failed promises of long-term capacity building. His members have become skilled builders of mining infrastructure and can find work during construction cycles, but the real long term opportunities lie in operations. His members have not had the same level of success securing long-term employment at mine sites. In his view, the problem is threefold:

  • a lack of capacity and training;
  • a lack of government focus on developing a pipeline of workforce skills that line up with opportunities; and
  • a lack of interest on the part of developers to change their human resource programs to truly maximize Aboriginal inclusion.

In the words of Chief Sangris, "meaningful engagement needs to happen in all project phases", right through to remediation. Staging of development is also important, and he asked why the government would push to open 10 mines now instead of staging them so that we don't use all of the non-renewable resources within a one or two generations. Sustainability is key.

Public-Private Partnerships and First Nations
Dale Booth, President, Tiree Innovation

In 2015, the Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships (CCP3) commissioned a report on addressing the First Nations infrastructure gap. Dale was part developing the report, and provided an overview of the report to the conference.

The success of public private partnerships in Canada has been a result of:

  • committed governments;
  • strong legal framework;
  • a focus on value for money;
  • deep financing markets;
  • public sector expertise; and
  • experienced procurement community.

According to Dale, there is huge potential in the North for P3s to play an important role in financing and supporting the much needed infrastructure for economic development.

Advancing Northern and Aboriginal Tourism
Keith Henry, Chair and CEO, Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada

The potential of Aboriginal tourism has not yet been unlocked, and strategic marketing is one of the keys to unlock it, according to Keith Henry.

Aboriginal tourism has a major role to play in the Canadian tourism economy because it:

  • grows cultural awareness and understanding;
  • delivers a deep meaningful connection with travellers; and
  • is a valuable opportunity for differentiation in the international tourism marketplace.

Choosing a Path Forward
Darrell Beaulieu, CEO, Denendeh Investments Incorporated

Darrell provided an overview of Denendeh's current operations and its plans for the future. He also spoke passionately about the benefits of First Nations participation in projects:

  • provides certainty;
  • ensures proper consultation and informed consent;
  • provides employment, training and business opportunities in First Nations communities;
  • creates own source revenue; and
  • provides innovative solutions.

Darrell's perspective on the ground is that there is industry appetite for meaningful partnerships with First Nations.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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