“Other jurisdictions- federal, provincial, municipal and the private sector, must now ensure that consent is achieved in any development. First Nations must be involved in that process. Our challenge will be ‘are we ready to define, mitigate and reconcile their so called justifiable infringement in a way that creates a place or a process where First Nations are making decisions about what development will or will not take place?’. Serpent River First Nation is taking the position that we are demanding sustainable development and that our approach will be upheld as justifiable. We must occupy the field and assert economic and environmental jurisdiction for the best interest of the next generations.” ~ Chief Isadore Day, Serpent River First Nations
It was in the 1990’s when the community of Serpent River First Nations was going through the motions of a vision and mission statement exercise. And then unexpectedly or not, a new consciousness –or perhaps a revived way of thinking, shifted the community’s approach to growth and development.
Chief Isadore Day spoke at NORDIK Research Institute’s annual general meeting about Serpent River First Nation’s dedicated transition from an economic development model to a sustainable development model. “Our right to self-determination is no longer questioned anymore. The question is of jurisdiction- our responsibility, and how to put the mechanisms and processes in place to assert our rights and responsibilities.”
Sustainable development takes into consideration immediate needs without jeopardizing the environmental, economic and social well-being of future generations. In Chief Day’s own words, the three ordered priorities of sustainable development are “the land, people and prosperity.”
The concept isn’t a new one for First Nations People.
“We have been advised by our elders for generations that we need to focus on the land. The land can survive without us but we cannot survive without the land. In our community we have simply stated that we can no longer trust development at face value in terms of what the economic impact is. We need to go back to what is important to the people and ultimately back to how we can sustain the land. If we want to assert jurisdiction in the area of environment then we have to line up our processes so that they are in line with the mainstream –plus. ‘Plus’ means that we want to be able to incorporate traditional and ecological knowledge and we also want to incorporate the historical dialogue around sacred sites and protocols with the land.”
Serpent River First Nation built a review process based on two key principles- harmonization and enhanced environmental assessments. “Harmonization means that the working relationships with everyone at the table need to be respected. And we’re also applying an approach using enhanced environmental assessments that identify current baselines and evaluates existing standards of environmental regulators.”
Chief Day expressed that sometimes consensus around the table won’t be easy. “It is not a slight undertaking to take from the land. Our people have deep connection to the land and we need to take our time with these decisions. And sometimes the answer is ‘no’. And we have to accept that.”
Regionally, and obviously around the globe, many would express that Mother Nature has recoiled from man’s march across the land, over the mountains and through the waters. Chief Day believes that we can no longer turn a willing blind eye to what is happening.
“There is no mistaking it. There are signs of major shifts in the environment on many levels.”
Serpent River First Nation recognized this urgency and sought out the support of NORDIK Research Institute so that their First Nation perspective could be presented and organized in a translatable format. NORDIK worked with Serpent River to produce a critical assessment that inventoried the assets and needs of the community and provided assistance with policy development and reviewing by-laws.
“We’re now preparing ourselves to reach out to the mainstream and First Nations in our territory. We really have to do things differently because we are at the epicentre of an environmental disaster. We want to take the lead and start talking about what sustainable development means from a land and environmental perspective, a social systems perspective and we want to look at new economic models moving forward.”
Serpent River First Nation is currently developing a proposal to establish a centre for sustainable development. Chief Day acknowledged that NORDIK’s work was influential in shaping the governance structure for the centre.
When one considers the level of involvement many First Nation communities have with global development projects, the Ring of Fire for example, it is clear that the inherent rights of the First Nations will have a significant impact upon economic impact domestically and abroad.
“Looking at indigenous roles and sustainable development in the context of our environment it couldn’t be clearer that the time is now. We have been taught as a people that there would come a time when indigenous people would lead the way. Not because we are better than the next human being but because in many cases we still have some of the DNA or some of the protocols and the ceremony that can help correct the path forward.”
However, Chief Day reinforced that sustainable development requires the involvement of diverse groups inclusive of traditional knowledge keepers, experts and community members who could guide the developmental processes.
“Sustainability can’t be done in silos or in a vacuum. Essentially if we’re going to ensure that the work that has been done and the perspectives that are evolving now continue to grow then we really need inclusion at a number of different levels- community level, regional level, with various partners and both the private and public sector. It will really be a task to communicate- essentially being committed to share and working together. And one of the tenets of sustainable development is to be able to work together and network.”