At first glance it seems like an unlikely pairing: Canadian First Nations tribal leaders and Chinese businessmen, developers and policymakers. However implausible a meeting between the Chinese economic behemoth and a small, historically marginalized native Canadian community may appear, that is exactly what happened in late 2008. At the RCI China-Canada Aboriginal Business Opportunity 2008 the two groups met to talk Chinese investment in and development on First Nations land.
A Chinese-Canadian aboriginal partnership is not at all improbable. First Nations tribes own or control a staggering one third of Canada’s landmass—much of it rich in oil, natural gas, forests and mineral resources. Beset by rampant poverty and a youth bulge that is swelling its need for economic opportunities, many Canadians tribes have begun looking at investment opportunities abroad. Calvin Helin, president of the Native Investment and Trade Association (NITA), put it bluntly: “Aboriginal Canada’s open for business.” On the Chinese side, the First Nations must seem a godsend: a willing trade partner with vast natural resources whose legal sovereignty over the land gives China a toehold on North American soil. This would mark a first for China and could have dramatic reverberations through the political world: suddenly the great resource-rich nations like America, Canada, Russia and others would be forced to contend with foreign nations establishing outposts on their soil using non-state actors as intermediaries.
It’s unclear how the MOU signed between China and NITA will play out in the long run. (Click here for a video that presents both sides’ views on the new collaboration.) The Canadian tribal chiefs may indeed bring much-needed investment and job opportunities to their people. And the example set in Africa should sound a note of caution before the ink dries on too many agreements.
As the China-First Nations deals unfold, are there lessons to be learned from China’s operations in Africa? China has invested aggressively in African industry and resource extraction ventures, with mixed results. Undeniably, the Chinese have canceled over $10 billion African debt and made significant infrastructure improvements. But Chinese ventures on the continent have been dogged by allegations of refusal to hire local workers, dismal work conditions and underbidding local competitors. Groups such as Transparency International have accused Chinese aid, which comes with no strictures on its use, of undermining efforts at good governance. What is the true price of Chinese investment? It is a question that spurs a heavy debate in Africa. In all likelihood, that same question will arise in the Canadian north–the more so now that minerals and resources are easier to access as ice and permafrost melt due to climate change.