A new corporation will give Alberta's Métis settlements an opportunity to interact economically in a way they haven't been allowed to before.
The Métis Settlements General Council and Settlement Sooniyaw Corporation created the Métis Settlements Development Corporation on Jan. 1.
The development corporation has been tasked with forming the Métis Settlements Limited Partnership (MSLP), which will allow from two to all eight Métis settlements to work together to economically benefit their communities.
Settlements will form limited partnerships based on common interests to participate in various large scale investment opportunities that are best accessed as a group, rather than individually.
The MSLP will be guided by the development corporation to seek out, assess, and invest in economic opportunities on behalf of the Métis settlements who choose to participate.
Herb Lehr, president of settlements general council, says the opportunity for the settlements to form smaller partnerships wasn’t available as Alberta’s Métis Settlements Act required all eight settlements to be in agreement in order to undertake investments.
“For 30-plus years we’ve fought with that, trying to come up with initiatives. We’ve found virtually hundreds of different investments we would have liked to take part in, but we could never get eight of eight (settlements) in agreement,” said Lehr.
“We’re trying to make it so we can be successful economically and the way the act is right now, so prescriptive, it’s been a hindrance.”
He admits that there are some settlements that are strong enough to undertake economic ventures on their own, but with the downturn in the oil economy and other factors “it makes much more sense to do things collectively or, at the very least, in partnership with one or two or three or four more other settlements and get a bigger bang for the buck.”
Funding for the development council has come through Canada’s Strategic Partnership Initiative (SPI) program. SPI brings together 15 federal departments and agencies. The program is designed to increase Indigenous participation in complex economic development opportunities.
“The Métis settlements are the first Métis organizations in western Canada to take advantage of the SPI,” said Lehr.
SPI funding has already gone to community members to develop such economic opportunities as greenhouses to provide food sustainability and for courses through LinkedIn Learning.
A headhunter organization was hired to put together the first board of directors. Settlement Sooniyaw Corporation appointed Alison Thompson, Justin Jimmy, Michelle Swanson and Josh Wylie, all experts skilled in investments and Indigenous economic development.
By using an outside firm, politics were kept out of the appointments, says Lehr. Settlement members will have an opportunity to round out the board, but they cannot be politically affiliated.
“We’re trying to ensure that this is 100 per cent driven by economic development,” said Lehr.
The development corporation also gives Métis settlements an opportunity to pursue larger development outside of natural resources, something not allowed by the Alberta Indigenous Opportunities Corporation (AIOC).
The province operationalized the AIOC in early 2020 giving it $1 billion of government funding for loan guarantees. The AIOC supports projects that require a minimum Indigenous investment of $20 million. Projects must involve natural resources and related energy infrastructure. Three projects have been supported by AIOC to date.
“We still have concerns over the AIOC. We find it very restrictive, centred on resource development rather than opening up economic opportunities carte blanche,” said Lehr.
“As Indigenous people we have concerns when it comes to resource development, so we find this is very manipulative of the province.”
However, Lehr said, if such opportunities as carbon capture systems or similar “sound economic ventures” presented themselves, the settlements would look to AIOC for financial backing.
While the new Métis development corporation won’t require all eight settlements to participate in a single venture, Lehr does anticipate that will happen on occasion.
“We don’t want handouts. Everybody’s got their pride. Nobody wants to live on handouts, be it from the federal government or the provincial government. The way to have true self-government is through economic development and to be in control of your own funds, then nobody can dictate to you because it’s your money unhindered. So that’s the whole move of this, to get us to be able to create our own funding to be accountable and responsible to ourselves,” said Lehr.
He said the new corporation is also about “moving toward operations with the federal government under Section 35 rights. There’s a move by the settlements to ensure that the rights of our people are lived up to and, of course, that goes back to the litigation against the province."
Last summer, the general council began legal action against Bill 57, brought in by the province to amend the Métis Settlements Act.
Lehr says they are still waiting for the Statement of Defence from the provincial government.
One of the changes brought about through Bill 57 will be playing out this month as the size of the general council executive drops from four to two, eliminating the secretary and treasurer’s positions.
“It’s going to make it very difficult to be able to do all the meetings that are required provincially and federally, as well as at the community level,” said Lehr, who will be running as incumbent president.
Also in keeping with Section 35 rights, the Métis settlements will be applying for federal funding to begin work over two years on a constitution that will be ratified by settlement members.