The onset of the pandemic threw a great many Canadians out of work.
Even J.P. Gladu, one of Canada’s most visible Indigenous business leaders, was lumped into the mix. He was laid off before he even started a new job.
In early 2020, Gladu said his goodbyes to his colleagues and left the security of his job heading the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB), where he had spent almost eight years.
Excited to enter a new chapter in his career, he packed up his Toronto condo in preparation to head out to Western Canada and into a CEO’s role at Bouchier, Alberta’s largest Indigenous-owned oil and gas services company.
Bouchier was one of the Aboriginal business success stories he often spoke so glowingly about in many of his speech engagements.
Then it quickly unravelled within days in one of those what-the-hell-just-happened moments.
Just days before he was to start, Gladu was informed by the company’s owners, who remain dear friends of his, that he was being let go as part of a massive company layoff, brought on by the pandemic. That included a halt on new hires.
“All of a sudden I had no job, no home, no car; all I had was a suitcase to my name and I was waking up on the couch of my ex-wife, who’s still a good friend of mine today.”
Like many entrepreneurs during COVID, Gladu smartly ‘pivoted’ and put his CCAB experience to good use in starting a consulting firm, Mokwateh (which means Bear Heart in Ojibway). He's working with First Nation, corporate and government clients on strategic and economic partnerships.
Thanks to Starlink, Gladu, an Anishinaabe member, can work out of his home at Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek (Sand Point First Nation), a community of 350 on the eastern shore of Lake Nipigon.
"Before I used to sit in the city (Toronto) and just couldn't stand it because I was always craving the land. I loved the work during the week because I was always engaged. But the weekend would come and...I am not enjoying this.
"Now I live at home and I live on the land. I visit the cities, which is much better calculus for me."
Working in the resource industry is in the family bloodlines.
Gladu graduated from Sault College as a forestry technician. His father worked in the forestry industry. A grandfather, on his mother’s side, helped build the Trans-Canada Pipeline across Northern Ontario. An uncle manages two hydroelectric projects.
These days, on many issues, people are polarized, said Gladu. Opinions and viewpoints are dug in. It’s no different when it comes to natural resource extraction.
Canada is home to vast resources of copper, nickel, cobalt, lithium, the mineral ingredients the world needs to make the conversion to the zero-emission economy.
Much of these metals are located on the traditional territories of First Nations, in remote and environmentally sensitive areas, such as Northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire, where some of Canada’s most impoverished and economically disadvantaged people live.
When it comes to resource development, Canadians are being asked to take sides in the debate of environmental protection versus economic growth.
Gladu argues they can go hand in hand, if development is done in an environmentally responsible way with spinoff benefits, and even Indigenous ownership, in projects.
“People are having trouble seeing the opportunity of a balanced economy and our environment.”
A combination of landmark court decisions favouring First Nations and international recognition of Indigenous and treaty rights — through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People — has shifted corporate thinking, compelling industry to realize that natural resource and infrastructure projects cannot be advanced without Indigenous engagement and participation.
During his time at CCAB, Gladu advocated for First Nation inclusion in supply and service procurement processes. He’s pushed for Indigenous appointments to major corporate boards to change up the “pale, male and stale” culture.
Now he’s urging governments to clear the impediments and give First Nations access to affordable capital to allow them to become equity partners in resource development projects.
As executive director of the Indigenous Resource Network, Gladu has also been active in penning some nationally published thought pieces, making the claim that resource development offers the most transformative way for Indigenous people to achieve economic autonomy.
And he’s joined other Western Canadian Indigenous leaders in calling out the “environmentalist colonizers,” a term first coined by former Haisla Nation chief and current B.C. MLA Ellis Ross. The label applies to urban outsiders and Hollywood celebrities who claim to speak for Indigenous people.
“Our communities are capable of making decisions. Our communities are not a monolith. Our communities want economic prosperity. We’re tired of managing poverty and we’re surrounded by natural resources.
“We gotta figure out a way of balancing our interests. I am a big land user. I hunt; I fish; I’m proud I can drink the water out of the lake. I’ll protect that 'til the day I die. But I want to make sure our communities aren’t impoverished.”
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As in any society, on any development issue, Gladu said, 20 per cent will be in favour, 20 per cent will be opposed. It’s those in the middle that remain to be swayed.
“We’re Indigenous people; we don’t always agree. Some of us are opposed to any kind of development at all, which I find sort of hypocritical.”
Gladu said to insist that there be 100 per cent consensus on whether a development can proceed is holding Indigenous people to an impossibly high standard. National governments are elected with 30-some per cent of the popular vote, he said.
But environmentalist activists and extremists have taken those voices of opposition and amplified them to present a misleading account, he contends.
“They’re using Indigenous voices to hammer away at the narrative, and to twist it.
“The rest of the world thinks we’re all opposed to resource development because of the unbalanced reporting in the media, and that’s frustrating.”
He readily acknowledges industry is not as adept as the NGOs in getting their message across to the public.
Gladu, who sits on many corporate boards, including Suncor, said industry has “failed miserably” in recognizing the importance of Indigenous people within their organizations and sectors.
There are numerous landmark multi-billion-dollar partnerships between corporate Canada and First Nations in oil and gas, mining, forestry, tourism and finance that should be showcased, he said, citing examples like the Clearwater fisheries deal in Nova Scotia.
Those success stories need to be promoted to counter extremist views that Gladu contends are “hurtful, harmful and outright lies.”
“We’ve got to show, front and centre, that Indigenous partnerships are working and they’re benefitting our communities.”
The scale of these collaborative partnerships in Northern Ontario are "few and far between" compared to the rest of Canada, Gladu acknowledges.
There are productive partnerships in hydroelectric developments, wind farms and transmission line projects, Gladu said, mentioning the Wataynikaneyap (Watay) Power Project in northwestern Ontario.
In Gladu’s community, a nearby lithium deposit is transitioning to production, offering beneficial opportunities for area First Nations. Up Highway 11 in Greenstone, three area First Nations are development partners in an open-pit gold mine project.
“We need to celebrate the wins in our region,” said Gladu. “A whole bunch of singles start to add up to runs batted in.”
He still has high hopes for the Ring of Fire.
The untapped mineral potential in the undeveloped James Bay region offers life-changing opportunities for Indigenous people. Yet 15 lagging years from the initial discovery, the area is shaping up to be a battle of hearts and minds between the environmental movement, Indigenous people, companies and government.
“I see a path forward, but it’s gonna take political will,” said Gladu.
Two First Nation communities —Webequie and Marten Falls — in the Ring of Fire are leading the engineering and environmental assessment processes for the access roads, which he wholeheartedly supports.
But more needs to happen, Gladu said, to move the people there beyond a “hand-to-mouth existence,” economically, “and I haven’t seen enough of that yet.”
Gladu, a former Noront Resources board member, thinks senior management at Wyloo Metals understands that based on their experiences partnering with Indigenous people in Australia.
“Those communities need to be economically empowered so they can drive the process.
“At the end of the day, we gotta make a decision. We don’t all agree on stuff. If we waited for everybody to agree, we’d never get anywhere.
“Make a decision and go.”