Revenue idea merits debate

The StarPhoenix October 15, 2011

The sharing of resource revenues with Saskatchewan’s First Nations is too important an issue to be tossed out during a provincial election campaign, seemingly without any further consideration than it seems a good idea.

NDP Leader Dwain Lingenfelter certainly is right to raise the subject, which is worthy of serious debate in a province whose rapidly growing First Nations segment constitutes about 15 per cent of the population today and is projected to rise as high as 30 per cent by mid-century.

Aboriginal people in the province and across Canada face a plethora of challenges, not the least of which has been an inadequate economic basis that would enable them to prosper in one of the world’s richest nations. So the issue of how they can benefit from Saskatchewan resource wealth is something best addressed politically, instead of through the courts, as some First Nations leaders asserting their treaty rights have advocated.

Yet, Mr. Lingenfelter’s proposal this week that he would, if he forms government, immediately begin negotiations with the First Nations, starting from scratch comes across more as a political notion cobbled together at the last minute on the back of an envelope than as a carefully considered policy position worthy of serious debate at this stage.

At best the NDP leader is being somewhat naive in suggesting: “We don’t want to start with anything on a scrap of paper.” As Premier Brad Wall – who “categorically rejects” Mr. Lingenfelter’s proposal – noted, aboriginal leaders such as Perry Bellegarde already are on record saying the First Nations should get at least 14 per cent of royalty revenues to be commensurate with their share of the province’s population.

Thus, even if the NDP leader wants to start with a blank page, the starting point for aboriginal people is about $400 million a year. That’s not to say it’s good or bad, but to ignore the fact that there’s a notion of a floor price simply isn’t helpful or productive.

What makes matter even more complicated is the NDP leader’s commitment to set aside $100 million a year from potash revenues into a special futures fund.

Mr. Lingenfelter might think there’s lots of flexibility in an $11-billion provincial budget to meet one-time costs of flood damage, plus hive off $100 million annually for savings, share yet-to-be established revenues with First peoples and pay for the promises he’s been making (a $64 million tax cut here, a $24 million dental program there, $50 million for a bridge somewhere else, all add up) and also repay the debt.

Yet, as Mr. Wall has learned, even in the best of economic times, that $11 billion hasn’t been nearly enough, requiring dipping into the rainy day fund to keep the books balanced.

For his part, the premier’s outright rejection of any notion of revenue sharing with First Nations seems equally shortsighted.

Mr. Wall may truly believe that “resource revenue of the province belong to all the people, belongs to everybody equally,” but should the matter end up before the courts for judges to decide, the government just might find out that Indigenous people are not like “any other group” when it comes to their treaty relationship with the Crown.

There’s no doubt that the NDP leader has raised an important issue that Saskatchewan needs to confront without delay for the sake of its future, but it needs far more thought than these two leaders have given it thus far.

The editorials that appear in this space represent the opinion of The StarPhoenix. They are unsigned because they do not necessarily represent the personal views of the writers. The positions taken in the editorials are arrived at through discussion among the members of the newspaper’s editorial board, which operates independently from the news departments of the paper.

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