Building on Common Ground
Trade secrets inform a breakthrough guide to industry and aboriginal relations
Poet Robert Frost observed, “Good fences make good neighbors.” But experience teaches Alberta, Saskatchewan and northern resource companies that when the neighbors are aboriginal communities, replacing fences with gates and bridges is more desirable and profitable.
After devoting the 1990s to devising the economically realistic provincial royalty regime that enticed industry back into the oil sands following a 20-year development drought, the Alberta Chamber of Resources turned in 2000 to build business relations with native nations. The result is a landmark “best practices” guide which taps 87 corporate sponsors for knowledge that often was considered proprietary trade secrets.
Chamber executive director Brad Anderson calls the ACR Aboriginal Programs Project, “one of the most profound pieces of research and documentation we’ve ever done. I think it’s the first time anywhere in the world that companies have been so bold as to share their best practices with other companies. That was a giant step.”
Industry is plainly hungry for knowledge and improvement.
A digital version of the native relations guide – www.acr-aboriginal project.org – reliably draws nearly 20,000 visits per month.
“Word got out,” Anderson said. “We didn’t promote this in any way, except by word-of-mouth.”
Over four years, a team of researchers compiled specific and anecdotal information on how to successfully work with aboriginal communities, business, groups and individuals.
The report takes a pragmatic view of why getting along with native communities is important to the resource industry. In a nutshell, self-interest can be a powerful motivator.
“It is a compelling fact that most resource companies in Western and Northern Canada are involved with aboriginal issues. The areas they need to access in order to develop resources are often adjacent to aboriginal communities or on aboriginal traditional lands.
“This makes a strong business case to build positive and mutually beneficial relationships with aboriginal communities.” In short, Anderson says, if you don’t get along with the neighbors, the neighborhood will always be uncomfortable.
In native relations, the neighborhood is big and costs of conflict are high. These realities were recently highlighted by the Whitesands oil sands project, which is doing field trials of a new production technology billed as a breakthrough in reducing expenses and environmental disruption. Sponsor Petrobank Energy and Resources Ltd. blamed a year-long delay in obtaining approval for new wells on complaints by the Fort McMurray branch of the Metis Nation and the Beaver Lake Cree Nation near Cold Lake. Both aboriginal communities are more than 100 kilometers away from Whitesands, and the Energy Resources Conservation Board ruled they have no right to make demands on the oil sands project because they are not directly or adversely affected. But the agency only made the decision in favor of Petrobank after pausing to conduct a formal regulatory procedure.
Anderson says, “We can’t really succeed in developing our resources unless we have the people who live around the resources in with us.” But he adds that an ad hoc approach of reinventing the native relations wheel every time the issue comes up is neither efficient nor economical.