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The American Indian Quarterly 28.3&4 (2004) 634-648

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Indigenous Land Claims and Economic Development

The Canadian Experience

The current socioeconomic circumstances of the Aboriginal people in Canada are abysmal. According to the 1991-census, 42 percent of Aboriginal people received social welfare, as opposed to 8 percent of the Canadian population as a whole.1 In the same year unemployment among Aboriginal people stood at 24.6 percent, almost two and one-half times the national rate of 10.2 percent. The Aboriginal population will rise by 52 percent between 1991 and 2016, while the working age Aboriginal population will increase by 72 percent (compared to 22 percent and 23 percent respectively for non-Aboriginal people). This means that as bad as these circumstances are, the prospects for the future are worse unless something is done to change the relative socioeconomic circumstance of Aboriginal people vis-à-vis other Canadians.

Aboriginal people in Canada have not been standing idly by accepting their socioeconomic circumstances. They have established development objectives and a process for attaining them (see figure 1). Entrepreneurship—the identification of unmet or undersatisfied needs and related opportunities and the creation of enterprises, products, and services in response to these opportunities—lies at the heart of this Aboriginal approach. Through entrepreneurship and business development they believe they can attain their socioeconomic objectives. These objectives include (1) greater control of activities on their traditional lands; (2) self-determination and an end to dependency through economic self-sufficiency; (3) the preservation and strengthening of traditional values and the application of these in economic development and business activities; and, of course, (4) improved socioeconomic circumstance for individuals, families, and communities. [End Page 634]

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Figure 1
Aboriginal Approach to Economic Development
Source: Adatped from Anderson and Giberson 2003.

It is important to note two things about this approach. First, it involves active participation in the global economy on a competitive business-based basis. Second, this participation—both the process and the objectives—are shaped by things distinctly Aboriginal. For example, Robinson and Ghostkeeper, in two papers discussing economic development among Indigenous people in Canada, suggest that they are rejecting industrial development imposed on them from the outside in favor of development strategies originating in, and controlled by, the community "with the sanction of Indigenous culture" (Robinson and Ghostkeeper 1987, 139). In their second paper the authors argue that "a wide range of cultures may enable entrepreneurship and economic development to flourish" (Robinson and Ghostkeeper 1988, 173). They go on to suggest that the key to successful Indigenous development lies in recognizing in each culture those forces conducive to development and "designing development plans accordingly" (Robinson and Ghostkeeper 1988, 173).

Not just in Canada but worldwide there has been increasing attention paid to Indigenous approaches to development "designed accordingly." For example, Agrawal says that the failure of neo-liberal (market) and [End Page 635] authoritarian and bureaucratic (state) approaches to development has lead to a "focus on Indigenous knowledge and production systems" (Agrawal 1995, 414). Continuing, he says that these efforts are an attempt "to reorient and reverse state policies and market forces to permit members of threatened populations to determine their own future" (Agrawal 1995, 432). For the most part, these efforts are not taking place outside the global economy but within it. As Bebbington suggests, "like it or not, Indigenous peoples are firmly integrated into a capricious and changing market. Their well-being and survival depends on how well they handle and negotiate this integration" (Bebbington 1993, 275). He goes on to say that the Indigenous approach to negotiating this integration is not to reject outright participation in the modern economy, "But rather to pursue local and grassroots control . . . over the economic and social relationships that traditionally have contributed to the transfer of income and value from the locality to other places and social groups" (Bebbington 1993, 281). This is certainly true of the approach to...


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