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The New Northwest Passage

November 19, 2008

Although trade missions to China may not seem all that newsworthy these days, one recent trade mission stands out. The delegates on this trip were not the usual federal and provincial representatives or the heads of well-known Canadian companies. They were Aboriginal Canadians. And they mean business.

From November 4-12, Aboriginal leaders and business people from coast to coast to coast travelled to China in search of investment. In the words of Calvin Helin, president of the Native Investment & Trade Association (NITA) and co-organizer of the trip:

“Our lands are full of oil, full of diamonds, full of iron ore and ripe for responsible and sustainable development, but there is a need for infrastructure, capital investment and value-added expertise. We are here to tell China that Aboriginal Canada is open for business.”

I find this trip fascinating for many reasons. For one, it highlights just how far several Aboriginal communities have come in their sophistication and business savvy. Although the reality for most Aboriginal people in Canada today is one of hardship, there are also many success stories that deserve our attention.

For another, it shows that Aboriginal peoples are not going to wait around for Canada (or the courts) to sort things out for them. Aboriginal leaders expect to have a nation-to-nation relationship with Canada, so why not extend this thinking to other nations of the world? Sometimes you have to leave home to appreciate what it has to offer.

But as much as this trip signifies a new beginning for Aboriginal self-sufficiency, it also highlights the vulnerability of the economic base of most Aboriginal communities. Aboriginal economies, for the most part, remain rural economies dependent on natural resource extraction. Forestry. Mining. Hydro. These are the golden eggs that most Aboriginal communities are hoping will allow them to emerge from the despair of poverty and unemployment that plagues so many of their people. But, as the ongoing financial crisis is only too clearly showcasing, natural resource economies are very fickle. They arrive before you are ready, and then leave just as you are getting to know them.

Only time will tell whether the recent trip to China will mark the beginning of a new era of internationalism in the Aboriginal business world, or just another story from the financial crisis of what-could-have-been. In either case, it is a story worth noting.


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