The Elsipogtog crisis in wake of “Idle No More”
It has been little over a year since the Idle No More movement brought the struggles of Canada’s Aboriginal peoples to the forefront of media and political attention. During the crisis, journalists and analysts debated at length what the causes for the protest were and where the movement was going. Protesters argued that the Federal government was not respecting their treaty rights and disregarding the environment in favor of natural resource development.
In the end the Idle No More protest highlighted the deep divide amongst Aboriginal leaders, and the lack of progress by the Federal government in finding solutions to help bring some of Canada’s First Nation communities up to a first world, or even a second world, standard of living. The movement fizzled: meetings were held, protesters went home and the media’s attention moved elsewhere. However, tensions between governments, industries and Aboriginal peoples still remain high, and Idle No More is now a rallying cry for Aboriginal people who, unlike the media and politicians, have not forgotten.
Almost one year after the Idle No More protest, a First Nation protest was back in the national media focus. The Mi’kmaq community of Elsipogtog was involved in a violent clash with the RCMP as protesters defied a court injunction to allow SWN Resources to continue testing for shale gas. Journalists watched in horror as the confrontation quickly escalated out of hand. If one Googles the conflict they will have no problem finding images that are downright shocking. Support quickly grew across Canada for the community of Elispogtog as other First Nation groups joined the protest by erecting barricades of their own.
In the wake of Idle No More how did this happen? Did the New Brunswick government really believe a heavy police presence would diffuse the situation? What role did SWN Resources have to play in this?
At the heart of most conflicts between Aboriginal leaders, government and industry is the question of consultation. What most companies do wrong when dealing with Aboriginal communities is to lose patience. Earning the trust of Aboriginal partners is not done after one meeting, or two, or three. It is a long process that must be open and transparent. Making these leaders and communities feel they have an ownership and say in project development is essential. However, industry more often than not puts the priority on moving a project forward at all costs and as quickly as possible. It seems as if SWN Resources did do some consulting, but when the injunction was imposed and a crisis exploded the company did “not answer calls”, hardly acting in a manner that is transparent.
The government must share some of the blame as well. The Minister had been in contact with the community but seemed incapable of defusing the tense situation. While the rule of the law must be respected and enforced by the government, the Minister could have done more to give peace a chance and allow for all parties to return to the negotiating table.
There are plenty of lessons for industry and government to learn from Elsipogtog, but what is evident from this event is that First Nations will not Idle No More and a small protest can quickly boil over into a larger crisis.
Companies cannot simply stick their heads in the sand and say that this is an issue between government and Aboriginal leaders. Blaming government or waiting for the government to react is a poor strategy and excuse for inaction. Industry must be proactive in improving and strengthening relations with their Aboriginal partners. This is the best and most effective way to ensure that business operations can run smoothly.
Here at Groupe GVM we have the expertise and professionals who can help bridge the gap between First Nation communities, government and industry and help your firm build trusting partnerships with Aboriginal partners.