Economics of the North

Photo by Paul Huber.

What the Resource Industry Can Teach Us About Reconciliation

Northern Saskatchewan is a magical place with dense boreal forests and hundreds of clear, sprawling lakes and rivers, bound by jagged rocks and animated by all kinds of creatures—from the lazy meandering of a black bear to the haunting, mystical calls of the common loon.

According to Statistics Canada, the large, sparsely populated region is home to roughly 40,000 people, half of those are under 20 years of age. About 80 per cent are Indigenous, and most speak a dialect of Cree or Dene.1 Fishing, hunting, trapping, and gathering are traditional activities for the Indigenous people living in the region. “Country foods” and living off the land remain a significant part of many peoples’ daily life. Tourism and outfitting often supplement and complement this way of being.

Beyond tourism and outfitting, the region holds vast amounts of value in natural resources. Uranium is one of the best-known, but commercial fishing, forestry products, peat, base metals, and oil and gas also offer significant value.2

The relationship between resource companies and the Indigenous people of northern Saskatchewan has slowly evolved from extractive and exploitive into one of mutual benefit. It is an ongoing negotiation between a variety of entities—businesses, individuals, organizations, governments—and, for many in the North, a balancing of traditional ways with the benefits brought about by major investments, infrastructure, training and education opportunities, new businesses and revenue, and jobs for local people.

John Desjarlais Jr., a Nehinaw (Swampy Cree)-Métis from Kaministikominahikoskak (Cumberland House) and general manager of Great Plains Construction suggests the results of these dynamic relationships—the advanced procurement policies, impact benefit and accommodation agreements, and the like—are “mechanisms” of economic Reconciliation.

“As a society, we’re starting to understand what exactly [economic Reconciliation] means in terms of the challenges of building that capacity with all that trauma,” he says. “A lot of those mechanisms ensure there’s a … it kind of forces Reconciliation—economic Reconciliation. It’s up to us to take advantage.”

According to Desjarlais Jr., an engineer, MA in Northern Governance, MBA, and former economic development executive for his home community, there have been significant advances in human resources, training, duty to consult, and wealth and development in the region. However, he says it is a slow process that took hold in the seventies and continues to evolve and grow as groups learn from each other and adapt.
Desjarlais Jr. also says these advances are the direct result of strong leadership from northern communities.

“We had strong political leaders, local leaders, that said we need to participate in this economy more meaningfully and assert ourselves to ensure a measure of sustainable development,” says Desjarlais Jr.
He points to Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s “Roads to Resources” initiative in the sixties as an example of how Canada approached the North as a “hinterland” rather than occupied territories with economies and communities to promote and develop.

“It was more to how do we increase access to resources—not necessarily for the purpose of development of the region, but for the purpose of development of the rest of Canada, southern Canada,” he says.
Leadership from northern communities at the time changed that. They “asserted” themselves, and this led to “surface lease agreements, those mechanisms provided for the language, which saw assurances of business opportunities and developmental opportunities.”

Desjarlais Jr. says this “snowballed,” leading to greater capacity. This increased capacity improved peoples’ understanding of rights and the value being extracted from their lands, which increased demand for greater engagement, benefits, and control. Resources companies and governments learned and adapted, and this continues today.

“As more people are getting progressively involved in a lot of the resource development opportunities—forestry, fishing, mining—[they] started to [ask] ‘are we receiving the benefit in relation to the wealth that’s leaving?’” says Desjarlais Jr. “And so, I think more and more capacity kind of snowballed into more and more assertion, [and] greater engagement, greater development, greater investment.”

According to an opinion piece penned by Desjarlais Jr. and co-writer Dr. Heather Exner-Pirot, “Indigenous businesses are 40 times more likely to be involved in the extractive industry than Canadian ones.”3 These companies hire and train primarily Indigenous people, says Desjarlais Jr., providing a welcoming and familiar culture for Indigenous employees but also improving health outcomes.

Plus, more Indigenous people employed by resource companies are rising past entry-level positions, he says, which provides role models and influences company culture. Besides employment, the revenues Indigenous communities gain from participating in the resource sector provide vital infrastructure and increase funding for health, education, and housing—all of which increases economic independence.
Northern people are independent and self-reliant, says Desjarlais Jr. Participation in the resource industry offers a short-term solution with long-term benefits and a return to increased autonomy and control. It also offers an opportunity to diversify. But this requires an investment in people.

“An increasing measure of investment in people … that’s the real sustainable development because once these resources leave, what are we left with?” he says. “As we grow the capacity of the people in the area, we can start to think more outside of resource extraction, [and] how do we create marketable opportunities.”

Bill Hogan, who has worked for the La Ronge-based Visions North Community Futures for 24 years and is now its general manager, agrees. With the booming youth population in northern Saskatchewan, training is key to economic development and diversification in the region, he says.

“Part of our strategic plan set by the board is to encourage youth entrepreneurship,” says Hogan. “I don’t want youth to look at entrepreneurship as a fallback plan. I would like to see them actually pursue it as a career choice.” Hogan suggests this often requires a shift in mindset from looking for a job to searching out opportunities.

“[An entrepreneur] is someone who can spot that opportunity. Who can get out there and say, you know what my community needs is this,” he says. “And we encourage young people to think like that—to think like, you know what, let’s look for opportunities here.”

Both Desjarlais Jr. and Hogan point to the tech industry as another growth opportunity. Pre-pandemic, Hogan hosted a tech camp with Jordan Schidlowsky, CEO of Noodlecake, a mobile game development company in Saskatoon. Hogan says Schidlowsky told the kids, “You can do this from anywhere. You don’t have to be in Saskatoon. You don’t have to be in Regina. You don’t even have to be in Toronto or Calgary.”

“Indigenous business are inclined to look at market opportunities related to the resource industry,” says Desjarlais Jr. “For better or worse, maybe we’ve kind of ignored other markets and sectors, but that’s changing and changing very quickly now.”


1Census Profile (Northern Saskatchewan and Manitoba) – 2016 Census, Statistics Canada, https://www12.statcan.gc.ca/censusrecensement/2016/dp-pd/prof/details/page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo1= ER&Code1=4760&Geo2=PR&Code2=46&SearchText=North&Search Type=
2Resource Map of Saskatchewan – 2018 edition, Saskatchewan Mining Association, http://saskmining.ca/ckfinder/userfiles/files/97534-ResourceMap2018_English.pdf
3Most Indigenous people support resource development: poll – by John Desjarlais Jr. and Heather Exner-Pirot, iPolitics, https://ipolitics.ca/2021/06/14/most-indigenous-people-support-resource-development-poll/