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Call to Action # 92: Business and Reconciliation (92)

Indigenous Resource Network: Indigenous Leaders: ‘We’re tired of managing poverty’

September 20, 2022

Indigenous people don’t need ‘environmental colonials’ to speak for them on resource development, says JP Gladu


SOOTODAY.COM: The onset of the pandemic threw a great many Canadians out of work.

Even J.P. Gladu, one of Canada’s most visible Indigenous business leaders, was lumped into the mix. He was laid off before he even started a new job. In early 2020, Gladu said his goodbyes to his colleagues and left the security of his job heading the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), where he had spent almost eight years.

Excited to enter a new chapter in his career, he packed up his Toronto condo in preparation to head out to Western Canada and into a CEO’s role at Bouchier, Alberta’s largest Indigenous-owned oil and gas services company. Bouchier was one of the Aboriginal business success stories he often spoke so glowingly about in many of his speech engagements. 

Then it quickly unravelled within days in one of those what-the-hell-just-happened moments. Just days before he was to start, Gladu was informed by the company’s owners, who remain dear friends of his, that he was being let go as part of a massive company layoff, brought on by the pandemic. That included a halt on new hires.

“All of a sudden I had no job, no home, no car; all I had was a suitcase to my name and I was waking up on the couch of my ex-wife, who’s still a good friend of mine today.”

Like many entrepreneurs during COVID, Gladu smartly ‘pivoted’ and put his CCAB experience to good use in starting a consulting firm, Mokwateh (which means Bear Heart in Ojibway). He’s working with First Nation, corporate and government clients on strategic and economic partnerships. 

Thanks to Starlink, Gladu, an Anishinaabe member, can work out of his home at Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek (Sand Point First Nation), a community of 350 on the eastern shore of Lake Nipigon. “Before I used to sit in the city (Toronto) and just couldn’t stand it because I was always craving the land. I loved the work during the week because I was always engaged. But the weekend would come and…I am not enjoying this. “Now I live at home and I live on the land. I visit the cities, which is much better calculus for me.”

Working in the resource industry is in the family bloodlines.

Gladu graduated from Sault College as a forestry technician. His father worked in the forestry industry. A grandfather, on his mother’s side, helped build the Trans-Canada Pipeline across Northern Ontario. An uncle manages two hydroelectric projects.

These days, on many issues, people are polarized, said Gladu.  Opinions and viewpoints are dug in. It’s no different when it comes to natural resource extraction. Canada is home to vast resources of copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium, the mineral ingredients the world needs to make the conversion to the zero-emission economy.

Much of these metals are located on the traditional territories of First Nations, in remote and environmentally sensitive areas, such as Northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire, where some of Canada’s most impoverished and economically disadvantaged people live.

When it comes to resource development, Canadians are being asked to take sides in the debate of environmental protection versus economic growth. Gladu argues they can go hand in hand, if development is done in an environmentally responsible way with spinoff benefits, and even Indigenous ownership, in projects. “People are having trouble seeing the opportunity of a balanced economy and our environment.”

A combination of landmark court decisions favouring First Nations and international recognition of Indigenous and treaty rights — through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People — has shifted corporate thinking, compelling industry to realize that natural resource and infrastructure projects cannot be advanced without Indigenous engagement and participation.

During his time at CCAB, Gladu advocated for First Nation inclusion in supply and service procurement processes. He’s pushed for Indigenous appointments to major corporate boards to change up the “pale, male and stale” culture.

Now he’s urging governments to clear the impediments and give First Nations access to affordable capital to allow them to become equity partners in resource development projects. As executive director of the Indigenous Resource Network, Gladu has also been active in penning some nationally published thought pieces, making the claim that resource development offers the most transformative way for Indigenous people to achieve economic autonomy.

And he’s joined other Western Canadian Indigenous leaders in calling out the “environmentalist colonizers,” a term first coined by former Haisla Nation chief and current B.C. MLA Ellis Ross. The label applies to urban outsiders and Hollywood celebrities who claim to speak for Indigenous people. 

“Our communities are capable of making decisions. Our communities are not a monolith. Our communities want economic prosperity. We’re tired of managing poverty and we’re surrounded by natural resources.

“We gotta figure out a way of balancing our interests. I am a big land user. I hunt; I fish; I’m proud I can drink the water out of the lake. I’ll protect that ’til the day I die. But I want to make sure our communities aren’t impoverished.”