Skip to content

Weaving Two Worlds

An Indigenous leader and resource industry executive lay out their vision for a new way forward.
Courtesy Michael McPhie

The following is an excerpt from Weaving Two Worlds: Economic Reconciliation Between Indigenous People and the Resource Sector, by Christy Smith and Michael McPhie, available March 1st from Page Two Books. 

Conflict around major resource projects is nothing new. In fact, it has been a factor to a greater or lesser degree in almost all major projects that involve altering the landscape or waterways or infringe on private property, culture, or the well-being of communities.

The reasons for that conflict have evolved over time as our collective awareness of the fragility of the natural environment and ecosystems is better understood, human populations have exploded, economies and societies have modernized, and values have changed. What has not changed, though, is our need for the products and services that come from these projects and industries. Minerals, metals, wood products, and energy are critical parts of every aspect of our modern life, and that is only set to increase in the future.

Industry practices have changed, in the most part for the better, in step with this evolution. And we have come a long way since the attitudes of the past, which can be epitomized by the likes of “Flying Phil” Gaglardi, the former mayor of Kamloops and the British Columbia minister of public works under Premier W.A.C. Bennett, who said that “air pollution is the smell of money.” For many, though, that change has not happened quickly or materially enough, and much remains to be done.

Marshall McLuhan once said, “The new is always made up of the old, or rather, what people see in the new is always the old thing. The rear-view mirror.” Many see their lives and events happening in the world through that perspective—seeing what is happening today through the lens of what they think may have been great about the past, while often ignoring those things that were not. Or vice versa. Our realities today are shaped by those experiences we have had, and we can only really move forward if we acknowledge where we have come from and recognize both the good and the bad of the past.

Romanticizing Our Industrial Past

For many who make their living in the resource sector or who are of an older generation, there is a tendency to romanticize the past and immortalize the pioneers and builders of our primary industries. They see them as providing a foundation for our modern economy and allowing all of us the opportunity to have the quality of life many of us enjoy today. And from that perspective, they are right, whether we are talking about the national railways that link the east and west of North America, the electrical infrastructure that delivers inexpensive power to millions, or the major roads and ports that enable global trade. Much of this was built decades ago, and almost all of it before modern environmental protection considerations, let alone consideration of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.

It is common to celebrate the explorers, political leaders, and industrialists who “opened up” new areas to development and championed infrastructure and resource development. For example, former British Columbia Premier W.A.C. Bennett was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1966 and applauded throughout North America and globally for his drive to construct hydroelectric dams, cut trees, and build metal and coal mines throughout Canada’s most western province. To this day he is immortalized by many as a builder who was part of the good old days when we could “get things done!”

US President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which was designed to kick-start the American economy post-Depression, was widely celebrated for its massive infrastructure build throughout the country. In this, nearly every river with adequate flow was dammed for electricity by the Army Corps of Engineers. This included the construction of the iconic Hoover Dam, which many credit as being one of the keys to increasing the industrial capacity of America, allowing the country to build more tanks, airplanes, and ships than the Germans and to ultimately be one of the deciding factors in winning the Second World War.

And let us not forget George Stephen, the Scottish-born engineer who led the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which connected the east and west coast of one of the world’s largest countries in the late nineteenth century.

Along with these are smaller but locally or regionally important mining, forestry, and energy projects, many of which were built by people—almost all men—with a pioneering spirit and a “get it done” attitude. We can see that history throughout Canada, North America, and globally in major projects that continue to this day, and in the many ghost towns and abandoned industrial sites that dot the global landscape.

Another Side to This Story

The legacy of all these projects is significant. They have provided access to inexpensive electricity and the ability to efficiently transport goods, and they have played a major part in creating the modern conveniences, economy, and societies of today. However, there is another side to many of these projects that involves the profound social and environmental impacts that came as a result. In some cases, those legacies continue to be experienced by communities or are evident in the state of the natural environment where they took place.

For example, an achievement often referred to in the context of Premier Bennett was the building of the iconic W.A.C. Bennett Dam in northern British Columbia. This immense infrastructure investment, completed in 1968, had the floodwaters of ten rivers and creeks converge into a massive hydroelectric project to form the Williston Reservoir. This one power project provides 25 percent of Canada’s westernmost province’s electricity needs today, and at the time it had the largest generating station in the world.

However, in this case local First Nations were not even informed, much less consulted, about the project, and much of their traditional lands were lost forever. The new reservoir resulted in the flooding of some 350,000 acres of land, with little regard to the environmental or social consequences that resulted. In 2016, almost fifty years later, the provincial utility, BC Hydro, apologized for the “profound and painful” impact on First Nations and the environment from this development.

With the major buildup of power infrastructure under Roosevelt in America, the impact on rivers and fish populations is likely almost incalculable. Many studies have weighed the impacts on the environment and people from the damming of US rivers such as the Columbia and the Rio Grande, and many of the dams that were put in then are now being removed. The Hoover Dam is truly a remarkable feat of engineering, even to this day. However, it does not take long in looking at the history to discover the displacement and impact to the Native American tribes of the region or the immense loss of life in the workers who constructed it, due to the extreme heat and unsafe working conditions.

The celebrated building of Canada’s national railroad is another example. Linking one coast to the other over thousands of kilometres and helping form the union of this massive country is a huge engineering achievement. However, one part of the dark side of this history relates to the use of more than fifteen thousand Chinese labourers, who were brought in during the 1880s to do the most dangerous and difficult work. It is said that one worker died for every mile of track laid through the Rocky Mountains between Calgary and Vancouver.

There are numerous stories like these that span every major industry. Indigenous communities often paid the highest price and received the least in the way of benefit. That is Canada’s history and the history of a significant part of the world.

The adage that past behavior is a good predictor of the future if the same people are involved applies. And it is in this context and reality that those involved in industry must face when we enter communities to promote the next major project. It is not enough to say we have the best engineers and scientists involved. That has not always worked, as we have seen.

Where We Are Now

The resource sector both here in Canada and globally remains a major part of the economy and global supply chain. Recent statistics published by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) International Resource Panel showed that with the rapid rise of population and per capita income, the twentieth century witnessed growth in annual extraction of construction materials by a factor of 34, of ores and minerals by 27, of fossil fuels by 12, of biomass by 3.6, and of total material extraction by 8. The material footprint per capita has also increased at a significant rate, according to statistics released by the UN recently. In 1990 about 8.1 metric tons of natural resources were used to satisfy an individual’s needs. In 2017 that rose to 12.2 metric tons, an increase of 50 percent. More simply, this means that each of us use over twelve thousand kilograms of resources every year to live, with those in rich countries having the most voracious appetite.

There are, of course, wide variations both between and within countries in this. But what these statistics demonstrate is that our dependence on natural resources for the functioning of our modern economy and society remains, and it will continue to well into the future. It also means that we will continue to see more conflict over projects that are proposed in areas that are deemed environmentally sensitive, or that are considered sensitive, spiritual, or subject to unresolved Indigenous claims or interests, or where they encounter resistance from communities and government.

Ultimately, concerns from the public are reflected in government policy that could, if not adequately addressed, impact the viability of entire industries. Whether we are talking about pipelines, mines, oil and gas projects, forestry, fisheries, or infrastructure, hard questions are being asked, and industry is being forced to respond.

The questioning and advocacy against certain parts of the resource industry is also being reflected in investment decisions by major sources of capital. Pension funds, for example, which reached a staggering value of 35 trillion USD at the end of 2020, are under increasing pressure from their constituencies to assess where they direct their investments. With the environment and social issues playing an important part of the evaluation of whether specific investments meet more stringent governance and sustainability objectives, this puts the entire resource sector under a lot of pressure and, in some cases, threatens the viability of entire parts of it.

The transition from the approach of the last century’s builders to today’s industry leaders being allied with Indigenous communities and stewards of the environment will be key to success in the future. We recognize that the path to a more sustainable future with regard to economic reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is not a straight one, and there remain major issues to address. Conflicts continue around projects. Communities are not being engaged with to anywhere near the degree they should be, and in many cases the rights of Indigenous Peoples are not being respected. Tailings dams continue to fail. In places like the Amazon, forest ecosystems are being ravaged by industry that’s enabled by lax government policy. Rivers and oceans continue to suffer under the pressure of unchecked development, and our global climate continues to warm. And the true commitment of management, boards, and governments to doing the right thing varies widely.

Industry has improved in many ways, though; there is no doubt about that. And, we would argue, many are moving it in the right direction. But just as many remain at odds with true sustainability, and recognizing and acknowledging past failures and the reasons for them is essential in being able to move forward.