Healing the Divide: A plan for B.C.'s rural development strategy

REPORT: In contemporary British Columbia, non-Native society is embracing more and more of the Indigenous approach to sustainable resource development. This Resource Works submission to the provincial Rural Development Strategy shows how this is tied to some fundamental economic truths.

post-image.jpgThe Indigenous Peoples of British Columbia have always known that their relationship with the land is fundamental to survival and prosperity. A deep understanding of the land base allowed them to develop complex systems that utilized natural resources in a sustainable manner. There was no urban-rural divide: Coastal economies cooperated with each other and with those in the Interior to create trade networks that stretched from the Pacific Slope to beyond the Rockies. Reverence for the abundance of these resources was expressed in sophisticated art and religious rites like the First Salmon ceremony, where the bones of the season's first salmon were returned to the water to ensure continued abundance.


In contemporary British Columbia, non-Native society is embracing more and more of the Indigenous approach to sustainable resource development. Industries like forestry and mining have adopted (and continue to improve upon) best practices to ensure long-term prosperity. These and other resource-based industries have also spawned world-leading technologies in the energy, mining and other sectors. British Columbia's resource sector has put our province at the forefront of technological innovation. At the same time, we're exporting our environmental standards to the rest of the globe, helping other nations build sustainable economies while creating wealth and employment at home.

The fundamental economic truth underlying our current prosperity is that both rural and urban British Columbia are dependent on natural resource development. The interconnectedness and dependency of both are so interwoven as to be inextricable; indeed, to some extent, the "rural economy" is a misnomer, since it is in fact the backbone of the provincial economy.

Yet, rather than recognizing this foundational fact and working together to ensure our shared prosperity, B.C. is caught in an increasingly bitter and dysfunctional rural-urban divide. Rural communities feel threatened and disempowered as policies designed to appeal to urban voters make traditional resource development increasingly difficult and, in some cases, impossible. Urban residents feel no connection to the resource industries and energy sources that provide them with the modern consumer goods that they depend upon for their standard of living. They're also increasingly suspicious of regulatory processes that are supposed to ensure responsible resource development. While there may be some degree of agreement on the need to diversify and transition towards a green economy, there are widely differing views on what this means and how to get there, adding significant tension to an already complex debate. Activity in regions such as the transitional energy corridor from Fort Nelson to Tumbler Ridge is on the right track. Any vision of the future must be analysed in terms of its foundational success factors.

Caught in the middle are First Nations communities who want meaningful participation in the economy and access to the value created on and from their lands and resources, especially in the wake of Tsilhqot'in Decision. Indigenous Peoples want a share of the wealth generated from their traditional territories and are often frustrated by business leaders and politicians who have little understanding of (or patience with) traditional aboriginal power structures and ways of doing business.

This divide is not healthy for either our political discourse or our economy. Never have we had so much scientific, anecdotal and hands-on experience of the B.C. land base on which to base policy decisions. And yet, never has the debate around resource development been more clouded by misinformation, myths and misguided notions. We as a province must find a way forward based on a respectful dialogue that is guided by honesty, respect and focusing on the values that drive us together, not the conflicts that create division. We have to dispel myths about the impossibility of balancing the environment and the economy and replace them with truths like embracing both resources and the environment will ensure sustainable, lasting opportunities for our families and communities. In tandem with this, we need to create a long term strategy for resource development built on consensus, one that works for all British Columbians.

Within this context, the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development is in the process of developing a new strategy to help rural and Indigenous communities build their capacity to create resilient, sustainable futures under the auspices of the Rural Development Strategy. In calling for submissions, the Ministry has asked respondents to answer three key questions:

  1. How would you like to see government continuing a dialogue about rural development?
  2. What are the key priorities to focus on for a Rural Development Strategy, from your perspective?
  3. What do we need to do now to take action on rural community issues for the long term?

The First Nations have much to teach us in answering to these questions. Respectful, honest, informed debate focused on uniting values rather than divisive conflicts is fundamental to Indigenous consensus-based decision making. Resource Works believes these principles should guide the dialogue about rural development. That dialogue should be informed by the best science, statistical analysis and economic studies we possess in order to present a clear picture of the importance of rural economies to the prosperity of the province. And it should be infused with the personal narratives of ordinary British Columbians from those communities – including First Nations communities – who can clearly articulate what must be done to develop an economic strategy that benefits not just them, but all of British Columbia.

The Resource Works submission to the Rural Development Strategy will address all three of the Ministry's questions through this lens. We will lay out a framework for a continuing dialogue about rural development, articulate the key priorities that a Rural Development Strategy needs to focus on and provide immediate action items to address these issues long-term.

There has never been a time in the province's political history where it was more urgent for British Columbians to abandon our traditional, polarized political discourse and build a new narrative based on mutual respect, solid science and the multi-millennia long experience of this province's Indigenous Peoples. In this way, we believe we can develop a Rural Development Strategy that truly helps rural and First Nations communities build their capacity to create resilient, sustainable futures and that will benefit all of British Columbia. Let this be, in deference to the First Nations, our First Salmon, returned to the waters of political discourse and policy making in the belief that it will ensure our continued, shared and inclusive prosperity.

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