A drum session at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission event in Victoria. Photo via Facebook.
As the Canadian government slashes the budgets of Indigenous organizations across the nation, many are struggling to stay afloat. Increasingly, Indigenous organizations are accepting lifelines from a controversial source—namely oil & gas or resource extraction companies—sparking a debate over whether taking the badly needed money is 'building relationships' or 'selling out.'
"We're trying to rebuild our credibility," says Hayden King, Director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance (CIG) at Ryerson University, an organization dedicated to advancing issues of Indigenous governance. The Centre launched in 2010, with financial help from Hydro One, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization and Vale Inco, a mining company. "The Indigenous community at Ryerson didn't know this money had been accepted to launch the Centre," says King.
Although it was the university who accepted these funds, the Indigenous community withdrew their support, effectively shuttering the Centre for about a year in 2011. King came on board after the Centre reopened, but he's still dealing with the backlash today."We're trying to atone for that but maybe there's no atoning for it," he says.
Another group under scrutiny is Indspire (formerly the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation), a national charity that's helped tens of thousands of Indigenous people attain higher education. Indspire also produces an awards show that honours the achievements of Indigenous peoples. Much of the money has come from Big Oil.
"Syncrude has invested more than $3.7 million in various aboriginal community projects in the past three years," says Will Gibson, media relations advisor with Syncrude Canada. However, Gibson wouldn't say how much of that went to Indspire. Indspire President and CEO Roberta Jamieson declined an interview to discuss corporate sponsorship, saying it wasn't in the organization's mandate.
Another philanthropic group, the Dreamcatcher Charitable Foundation provides grants to Indigenous youth and communities. Representatives from the Foundation also declined to be interviewed, their newsletter contains a list of sponsors that includes one of the the largest tobacco companies in the country.
The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is another proud sponsor of Indigenous initiatives. In 2013, the NWMO bankrolled a general meeting of the Metis Nation of Ontario and an elder and youth environmental initiative for Indigenous people in Saskatchewan.
Another oil & gas giant, Enbridge, has opened their wallet for Indigenous groups. Any First Nation school near Enbridge's projects can apply to their 'School Plus' program—money for K-12 programming. A total of 91 schools can apply, and many of them do. Over the years, Enbridge has also partnered with the University of Winnipeg to fund an inner-city program for students, to Our.story.ca, a national short-story contest. There's also golf tournaments, annual powwow celebrations, Christmas hampers for kids, holiday parties, elder gatherings, and the list continues.
Even the Truth and Reconciliation Commission—tasked with revealing what happened because of Canada's disastrous Indian Residential School system—has had events sponsored by these companies. For instance, Syncrude and Enbridge have recently contributed to their last and final TRC event.
"This is a very destructive and an oddly matched exchange," says Clayton Thomas-Muller, the Co-Director of the Indigenous Tar Sands Campaign of the Polaris Institute. "This area of corporate sponsorship has gone on without any critical analysis or criticism."
Accepting corporate sponsorship from the very same companies that advocate against Indigenous rights and land claims, not only contributes to the erosion of Indigenous rights but sends the message that this is the norm, says Thomas-Muller. "What it gives these companies is the social license to operate as business as usual… And it's being done by throwing money into scholarships, bursaries, or thousands of dollars into writing awards,” he says.
"Companies are able to exploit organizations and native people generally because they know we don't have any resources," says Hayden King. "There's a power imbalance." King says Indigenous people need to ask themselves why companies are approaching them in the first place and how the company might be benefiting.
But J.P. Gladu, CEO of the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business—a group that advocates for Indigenous businesses—sees it another way. "We don't build pipelines, we don't build mines—we're about building business opportunities that are reflective of aboriginal people," says Gladu. With no government funding, Gladu says the CCAB has to be creative and one way is through sponsorships from Canadian corporations.
But it isn't just charities and associations who are accepting money from corporations. Increasingly, it's Indigenous political groups too. Some political groups have lost as much as 80% of their budgets in recent years.
Called 'new funding models' by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, the latest string of cutbacks has crippled the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations and Chiefs of Ontario, two regional organizations with long histories. Considered the largest Indigenous organization, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) has also taken a significant hit. The AFN has lost over $1 million in funding over the past two years and has had to layoff staff. Neither side has said how much, but the AFN accepted money from the Nuclear Waste Management Organization to help pay for their Elders, women's and youth councils.
CEO of AFN Peter Dinsdale says it's a necessity when the AFN is struggling in times of cutbacks and expensive legal cases. "I think we have to make sure that any sponsorship we get is ethical," he says. "How we define that will be different for every organization."
Currently, the AFN is drafting a corporate sponsorship policy that Dinsdale says will ensure Indigenous rights are not being infringed by accepting money. The Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University is also in the process of developing a policy as well. Hayden King says a major aspect is not accepting money from nuclear waste or mining companies. As Indigenous organizations struggle to survive in an age of government cutbacks, the question remains—where will the money come from?