In the Ottawa Citizen and other Postmedia outlets today, MLI’s Brian Lee Crowley writes about the alarmist media reaction to the launch of MLI’s new project on Aboriginal Canadians and the natural resource economy. Despite the good intentions of the project’s authors, the media coverage too often ended up reinforcing old prejudices the project hopes to help dispel. Crowley concludes that if we are to make progress in building partnerships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians we have to look past our fears and anxieties. We are not quite there yet, he says.
No Good News Story Goes Unpunished
By Brian Lee Crowley, Ottawa Citizen, May 10, 2013
Probe the mind of the average Canadian and you’ll likely find a complex knot of feelings and thoughts about aboriginal Canadians, a mixture of guilt, admiration, resentment and frustration in roughly equal measure. But perhaps more importantly, you’ll find a deep vein of pessimism, a feeling that relations between aboriginals and non-aboriginals is a mine field, that the problems are intractable, that huge sums of money are spent but things never improve.
This picture comes from many sources, but one of the most important is the media who often reflect back at Canadians their own anxieties and preoccupations, including about First Nations.
Yet we are on the cusp of a revolution in relations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians. That revolution will be driven by the potential of the natural resource economy to create wealth, coupled with the increasing need to make aboriginal Canadians full partners in resource development if we are to unlock that wealth. New respect from the courts for aboriginal treaties and rights, particularly as they relate to resources, make them indispensable for developments that touch on their interests.
I tried to tell the story of the positive developments that are the most likely outcome of this increased aboriginal power recently when my institute launched a new project on Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy, but I made a bad mistake. I underestimated the power of important segments of the media to subvert a good news story that conflicted with their prejudices. Conflict and anxiety sell. Blossoming partnership doesn’t.
Here’s how I got it wrong: in my naiveté I thought we had to tackle the thorny issues around aboriginal/non-aboriginal relations head on. That meant looking at what could go right and what could go wrong, and a strategy to maximize the first and minimize the second.
My co-author, Ken Coates, Canada Research Chair at the University of Saskatchewan and I wrote about the great potential for partnership with First Nations, and how many of those partnerships in places like northern BC, the Yukon, northern Quebec and elsewhere are already paying huge dividends, including for aboriginal people. Vast new aboriginally owned development corporations are sprouting up to run their projects on a business-like basis, and soon will be among the largest corporations in the country. Aboriginal involvement in the oil pipeline from the Northwest Territories has been so successful they are now taking an equity participation in a proposed gas pipeline. These are models we can build on in enlarging the partnership with aboriginal people beyond the communities where it is already working.
But I insisted that we not neglect or downplay the potential for things to go wrong. No one who remembers the Oka crisis, or followed the conflict at Caledonia in Ontario, or reads the many stories of aboriginal blockades of critical highways and railways, can be in any doubt that conflict exists between aboriginal Canada and the rest of society, and sometimes that conflict boils over.
So I also asked Doug Bland, a retired colonel in the Canadian Forces and professor emeritus of strategic studies at Queen’s University, to write about the potential for conflict, so that our two papers would lay out the alternative futures we have before us. He sensibly wrote that the research on uprisings and insurrections from around the world indicated that the existence of certain factors, like a young disaffected group (the “warrior cohort”), vulnerable infrastructure and deep social divisions (such as between aboriginal and non-aboriginal Canadians) all made such conflict more feasible.
Bland’s point was that we can lessen the chances of insurrection by dealing with these contributing factors, reducing the likelihood of conflict. Moreover at the press conference where we launched the project, we were at pains to point out that we were not predicting conflict but laying out the reasons for optimism and strategies to reduce the risk of things going wrong.
For our pains we got front-page stories across the country claiming that our “grim” report “predicted” a long hot summer of aboriginal uprisings.
Thus our effort to introduce a note of justified optimism into what can sometimes seem a desperately depressing discussion unleashed much alarmist coverage almost completely divorced (with some honourable exceptions) from what we said.
Fortunately the aboriginal world got the real message and we have been encouraged by the outpouring of encouragement and even relief from people who were just delighted to see someone telling the optimistic story they are living every day on the resource frontier. We are swamped with invitations to speak to aboriginal economic development conferences. The National Chief of the AFN, Shawn Atleo, wrote to congratulate us.
Aboriginal reality is changing all around us, largely for the better. But the way we talk about these issues has yet to catch up. I have the scars to prove it.
Brian Lee Crowley (twitter.com/brianleecrowley) is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think-tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.