There's no shortage of companies in the natural resources sector looking to partner with Indigenous communities – but not all partnerships are built on level playing fields.

Some Indigenous communities have developed great capacity and are very business savvy – when they're approached by a potential business partner, they're ready to conduct their due diligence and negotiate a fair deal.

Other communities don't have the same resources to evaluate potential business partners – and they may find themselves at risk of being taken advantage of, said Billie Fortier, a partner in the MLT Aikins Calgary office and a member of Forward Summit's leadership council.

"Of course there will always be some unequal bargaining power among parties when they're entering into negotiations, but I've seen one-sided agreements with First Nations and Indigenous companies that I find really distressing and unethical," Fortier said during a panel discussion on the ethics of Indigenous engagement at Forward Summit West.

Because those one-sided agreements can be challenged in court, they ultimately pose a risk to the companies partnering with Indigenous communities, she added.

"I want to see people come to the table in a respectful and ethical way," Fortier said. "I do not want to see communities taken advantage of."

Some organizations are trying to address this power imbalance. Fortier noted that the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation offers Indigenous communities capacity funding that can be used for due diligence, accounting, legal and other professional services, helping level the playing field.

Karen Restoule, vice-president at Crestview Strategy, said companies need to rethink their approach to engaging with Indigenous communities.

"We're all so keen to engage, but when it comes to the process, are we just showing up at the table and subscribing to the way business gets done in the western world?" Restoule said.

Indigenous communities should be empowered to engage in a self-determined process that gives them the choice to work with companies in order to achieve their own goals, she added.

Fortier said she'd like to see Indigenous epistemologies integrated into the curriculum at business and law schools in Canada – one of the calls to action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission – to ensure that companies approaching Indigenous communities do so in a respectful way.

"A lot of the time I feel like I'm acting more like a gatekeeper than a lawyer," she said. "I look forward to the day when that will not be a role that I have to play."

Forward Summit West took place in Calgary from May 17-18, hosted on Tsuut'ina Nation territory. The annual conference features panel discussions on economic reconciliation for Indigenous communities. MLT Aikins lawyers Billie Fortier and Bob Black both spoke at this year's event. MLT Aikins was pleased to be an exhibitor at Forward Summit West.

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