Why Alberta is 'leading the way' on economic reconciliation

Alberta has a number of initiatives to spread economic prosperity to Indigenous and Métis communities.

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This story originally appeared in the What’s up with Alberta? newsletter, a joint project between the National Post, Edmonton Journal and Calgary Herald. You can sign up for the newsletter here.

Alberta has a number of reconciliation initiatives. Some are cultural (such as repatriating Indigenous artifacts) or linguistic (such as funding the Indigenous Languages Resource Centre). The province is also working on 20 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action. It also has an extensive program of economic reconciliation, meant to include Indigenous communities in Alberta’s economic prosperity. What’s up with Alberta? editor Tyler Dawson spoke to Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson about economic reconciliation. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Why is this a focus for the UCP government?

When I first started down this journey on reconciliation, I wasn’t really too clear on it myself to be honest with you. But my good friend and mentor, Willie Littlechild … he started me down this journey and he said, “Minister, a lot of governments talk about doing stuff, a lot of talk, but I never really see anything happen.” He says, “Why don’t you be the government that takes action?” He says, “Let’s call it reconcili-action.”

What are we going to do that’s going to be meaningful? Our time in government is really short. And, when I leave, I want to be able to say, “I made a difference in this.” To me that’s what it’s all about — making a difference and helping communities. You know, when you can see kids come up to you and thank you, (saying) that all of a sudden you’ve turned their life around, man, that’s powerful stuff.

What are some of the actual programs the UCP has on economic reconciliation?

The AIOC, that’s the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation, that’s the big one.

This has become huge. So now it’s a $2-billion backstopping project. I’ve seen this as a game changer in communities. (Ed: The AIOC removes barriers to economic development for Indigenous communities by backstopping large loans.)

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That was the biggest hold back, I’d say for a lot of, especially a lot of the smaller communities, that didn’t have that business acumen or the ability to raise big funds.

So it’s a total game changer, especially (in) some of the smaller communities where they’ve been able to buy land and start little buffalo herds or start little stores and put it into housing and social programs. So (the AIOC is) really doing what we anticipated (it) to do.

It’s taken a while to get a lot of the projects up and running just because we are being very careful with the vetting. But now that we’re a couple of years in, all of a sudden all these projects are coming to fruition. And we’ve got a lot of projects that are at the doorstep getting ready to take off.

The other one is our ABIF. That’s our smaller one. That’s the Aboriginal Business Investment Fund.

They can get up to anywhere from $100,000 up to $750,000 and this is to start those smaller businesses, just to kind of help communities get started.

For instance, we’ve done a couple of service stations, truck-stop–type things. It seems like a small business but it’s a game changer in some of the communities.

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Then I came up with another fund and we’re calling it the Indigenous Reconciliation Initiative. It’s a $3-million fund. And it’s going to provide grants (of) up to $100,000 for community projects, just to improve economic and cultural aspects.

Another one we’ve got is around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and that’s called a Community Security Support Fund. And this one is going to provide grants for Indigenous-led initiatives that help prevent violence and to increase the safety and economic security of Indigenous women and girls and the two-spirited-plus people. Now that’s $4 million (in) grant funding we’ve got set up and recipients can receive up to $200,000 per grant on that one.

The other one we’ve got is the First Nations Development Fund (FNDF). It comes in from the casinos. So all the First Nations are able to share in the profits from that and so part of the funding goes into this FNDF fund and then it’s for community programs, social programs.

It could be everything from getting trucks for the housing department for Athabasca — we helped Frog Lake with purchasing an excavator; some training and development programs for Tsuut’ina; (it) purchased a fire truck for Kapawe’no.

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There’s a pretty wide-range of economic prosperity around Alberta — some First Nations have done very well in the oil and gas sector, for example, and others haven’t had as much opportunity. To what extent do these programs level the playing field a bit?

That’s what I was a little bit worried about, too. Because the ones with the business acumen, have been in business and (are) doing well, they’ve got the people on staff that can do the grant writing, and they’re going to do a better job of getting the grants just because they’ve got the ability to do that. (Ed: Wilson mentioned the Cascade Power Plant project near Edson, Alta., where six First Nations joined together in partnership as an example of how smaller First Nations can get involved in large-scale projects.)

You’ll see shortly some stuff that is coming down the pipe that’s going to involve a lot of communities working together. We’re so excited that we can help the smaller communities work with the larger ones and start moving their communities forward as well.

The projects under the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation so far seem largely to be around energy. Is that all it is?

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When we first started this, we were looking at mostly energy projects. So we started out with oil and gas, mining, forestry and renewable projects. But as it moved along, I was hearing from other communities that they wanted to get into other things. So we looked at what we can expand it into and one of the things we heard about was agriculture. So we’ve expanded into agriculture. (Indigenous) tourism is a huge one — I think that’s going to be a really big boon for Alberta.

Not every community has oil and gas or energy projects, but they can get into other things.

Is there anything else important we didn’t touch on?

We are leading the way on this. I get calls from not only across Canada but across the world.

I’ve had (officials) from New Zealand come and talk to us about it. We’ve talked to other ministries across other provinces. So I think what we’ve done here is just created something that’s really going to make a difference for the Indigenous and Métis communities.

– Tyler Dawson, What’s up with Alberta? editor

Curated by Tyler Dawson, the National Post’s Alberta correspondent, the What’s up with Alberta? newsletter is exclusively available to subscribers of any Postmedia newspaper. It appears in subscribers’ inboxes at 5 p.m. MT Tuesday and Thursday, with the latest news, in-depth analysis and need-to-know information about Canada’s most dynamic province.

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