August 29, 2017 Print

The history of Canada’s Aboriginal people is one of state dependency and a lack of opportunity. To address these challenges, Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy (MLI)’s multi-year Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project has made the case that Indigenous engagement in the booming Canadian resource economy provides a once-in-a-century opportunity to set right the fundamental inequalities within Canadian life. MLI has done so by employing rigorous research and an ambitious plan to disseminate its findings through regional summits between business and Aboriginal leaders, Parliamentary testimonies, and broader communications. MLI’s unique use of a 12-person Aboriginal advisory team composed of reform-minded Aboriginal business leaders, lawyers, economists, public policy analysts, and other types of scholars informed and oversaw its work, which has given the project greater resonance in Aboriginal communities. Through its advocacy of strategies such as revenue-sharing agreements, legal certainty, and frameworks for Aboriginal equity investment, MLI’s project to improve the lives of Aboriginal Canadians through market-based solutions is having a strong impact. It has won widespread buy-in not only from Aboriginal and business communities but also from the Canadian government.

A Once-in-a-Century Opportunity

A number of disconcerting realities involving Canada’s Aboriginal population spurred MLI into action. Young Aboriginal people are faced with the stark statistic that more of them are more likely to end up in prison than graduate from high school. Their earning potential is a fraction of non-Aboriginal Canadians – between 25 to 50 percent. This, MLI says, is a heartbreaking effect of ill-conceived policies of paternalism that have done more harm than good.

“I am immensely proud that MLI has put unlocking prosperity for the Indigenous people of Canada at the forefront of its work,” said Brian Lee Crowley, managing director of MLI. “For too long Aboriginal people have been forced by government policy to live outside the institutions that confer opportunity on everyone else. Our Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy Project aims instead to bring Aboriginal communities into the economic mainstream while giving them more power and authority over their own lives and ensuring that development takes place in a way that is respectful of the environment and Indigenous priorities.”

Despite many barriers to success, the Aboriginal community has discovered that increased freedom, independence, and markets create the opportunity to reclaim control of their lives. The principal force behind this is Canada’s stock of natural resources, which is one of the largest in the world, with monumental reserves of natural gas, hydro-electricity, potash, uranium, oil, and several others.

With resource development projects planned throughout Canada, the country is taking advantage of these natural resources, and Aboriginal communities are benefitting. Prospective investments reach nearly $675 billion for such resource development projects throughout the country. All of these projects are located on or near traditional Aboriginal territories. Aboriginal entrepreneurs, freshly empowered by the opportunities offered in resource development, are beginning to replace dependency with prosperity for their communities.

MLI has sought to promote this productive economic activity in its multi-year Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project because it believes the natural resource economy provides the lever with which to raise the Aboriginal community out of systemic poverty, thereby increasing Canada’s overall economic freedom and pro-market environment. In this endeavor, MLI has been working to produce a public policy atmosphere in which market-based outcomes can thrive. With its vision for the self-sufficiency of the Aboriginal population based on Indigenous autonomy, resource development, and strong economic partnerships, MLI drew from its strong team of economists, legal scholars, and Aboriginal leaders to produce a series of policy papers exploring the biggest obstacles to resource development. These include reducing legal uncertainty, creating a framework for Aboriginal equity investment, cultivating human capital among the Aboriginal population, and designing revenue-sharing agreements.

Decades of heavy government paternalism proved hard to root out, however, especially with the Canadian government’s decision to fully adopt the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP) a few years ago. This move was troublesome due to the “free, prior, and informed consent” provisions that would have allowed the most intransigent voices to veto natural resource projects at the expense of whole communities who seek to partner with companies to improve the lot of their people. The UNDRIP, though well-intentioned, actually posed a risk to inflict further harm on Canada’s Aboriginal population.

Credibility and Community

To educate the public on these associated risks, MLI published two studies, co-written by Ken Coates (a senior fellow at MLI) and Blaine Favel (a leading Indigenous resource lawyer) in May 2016. Coupled with these studies were a sophisticated communications and outreach strategy to put pressure on the government to reverse its decision and to educate businesses and Aboriginal communities about the full implications of adopting the UNDRIP. Eventually Canada’s Justice Minister, a prominent national Aboriginal political leader, came to support MLI’s view that adopting UNDRIP would cripple the bottom-up, market oriented progress already being made. Later in 2016 Canada’s Senate frequently consulted MLI in its hearings, eventually issuing a report in December of the same year that drew extensively from MLI’s testimony and several of its top recommendations. Senator Douglas Black even publicly thanked MLI for publicizing the opportunity that the resource economy offered for the Aboriginal community.

The defining aspect of the Aboriginal Canada and the Natural Resource Economy project has been its collaboration with the Aboriginal community. MLI has increasingly used Aboriginal authors for its work and created a 12-person Aboriginal advisory team to provide counsel and oversight on its work on the project. This advisory team is composed of reform-minded Aboriginal economists, business leaders, lawyers, public policy analysts, and scholars and has lent credence to MLI’s work vis-à-vis the Aboriginal community.

This has led to MLI pursuing partnerships with various Aboriginal groups, speaking at local conferences of Indigenous organizations and meeting with community groups. As a result, MLI has been able to better understand the processes and priorities of various Indigenous leaders, businesses, government, and organizations.

Meanwhile, MLI’s media presence has been steadily on the rise: its number of Twitter followers has grown 40 percent in the last 14 months while its work is occasionally highlighted in the National Post, which has a readership in the millions. The community has recognized the valuable work that MLI is doing: Ken Coates was recently awarded the 2017 Award for Excellence in Aboriginal Relations by the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business for his contributions to Indigenous business development.

"Beyond its obvious positive consequences inside Canada, MLI's work with Aboriginal communities is potentially a model for others around the world,” said Atlas Network CEO Brad Lips. “Too often, governments have created dependency among populations that would benefit most from economic engagement. MLI's project shows a constructive way forward."

About the Templeton Freedom Award and the additional 2017 finalists:

Awarded since 2004, the Templeton Freedom Award is named for the late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton. The award annually honors his legacy by identifying and recognizing the most exceptional and innovative contributions to the understanding of free enterprise, and the public policies that encourage prosperity, innovation, and human fulfillment via free competition. The award is generously supported by Templeton Religion Trust and will be presented during Atlas Network’s Freedom Dinner on Nov. 8 in New York City at the historic Capitale. The winning organization will receive a $100,000 prize, and five additional finalists will receive $25,000 prizes. In addition to MLI, the other finalists for the 2017 Templeton Freedom Award are:

For media inquiries about the 2017 Templeton Freedom Award, contact Daniel Anthony at or (202) 449-8441.