MAC: Mines and Communities

Aboriginal Canadians go trading with China

Published by MAC on 2008-07-09

First Nations on China mission

by Geoffrey York

The Globe and Mail

7th July 2008

BEIJING -- Chinese business leaders will be treated to a rare sight in Beijing today: a Canadian aboriginal ceremony with a transformation mask that has never been taken outside its remote British Columbia community.

The mask, normally used in potlatch ceremonies, was brought to Beijing this weekend as a symbol of the hopes of B.C. aboriginal leaders as they launch their historic first trade mission to China, where they are seeking forestry and mining deals that could transform their economically struggling communities.

Burdened by unemployment rates of up to 85 per cent, the First Nations leaders are aiming to win Chinese investment and markets for their forestry and mineral resources.

They are visiting five Chinese cities over the next week, meeting some of China's biggest companies in the wood-products and mining sectors.

After a series of court rulings in their favour over the past six years, the B.C. aboriginal communities now have 155 timber tenures with an annual allowable cut of 5.6 million cubic metres. They created the First Nations Forestry Council in 2006 to seek markets for their resources.

"Our people are desperate for work, and nobody is giving us those jobs on a silver platter, so we have to go out and find opportunities to create employment for our communities," said Grand Chief Edward John of the First Nations Summit, one of the leaders of the trade mission.

"We see China's booming economy and we feel that we need to stand up for ourselves in China and not let others speak for us," he said in an interview yesterday.

While B.C. politicians have organized a series of trade missions to China in recent years, they rarely included any aboriginal leaders in those missions, Mr. John said.

"We know that China has a tremendous interest in B.C., and we don't want to be sitting on the margins as we have in the past. The problem is finding markets for our timber, and the only way to find opportunities is for us to go out and knock on doors and let people know that the First Nations have this resource base and they're open for business."

Many forestry licences in aboriginal communities are sitting dormant for lack of a market for the timber. The communities are finding little interest from the major Canadian forestry companies, while the U.S. market has deteriorated because of the subprime mortgage crisis.

So the aboriginal leaders are looking across the Pacific Ocean to China, where the demand for wood products is booming.

They have found strong interest from Chinese businesses so far, with many leading companies keen to meet them this week.

They are already discussing prices and investment opportunities with some Chinese companies, whose traditional Russian timber suppliers have become less reliable because they were hit with a 25-per-cent log export tax this year.

Chinese mining companies have also indicated interest in the aboriginal trade mission.

High mineral prices are sparking a wave of exploration activities in Canada's aboriginal territories, and Chinese companies are looking at whether to join the rush.

Yesterday the aboriginal leaders signed a memorandum of understanding with Zhongchuan International Mining Holding Co. Ltd., a mining company based in Beijing, in which they agreed to co-operate on investment opportunities in Canada.

The Chinese company also accepted an invitation to attend the First Nations Mining Summit, which will be held in Prince George, B.C., this October.

"I'm optimistic because I think the opportunities are there," Chief John said.

"We're not going to wait for others to do it for us - that's never worked for us in the past."

Frank Brown, an entrepreneur and eco-tourism operator from the Heiltsuk band in Bella Bella, B.C., will conduct the traditional aboriginal ceremony for Chinese forestry industry leaders at the B.C. Canada Pavilion in Beijing tonight.

It is the first time that he has taken the transformation mask outside of his community.

He says he brought the carved wooden mask to China because it is a symbol of transformation and opening to new opportunities.

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