Economic Freedom: Breaking the Culture of Welfare Dependency
Chief Jerry Asp says any community can change its destiny in a message that reverberates around the world
For generations the Tahltan Nation of northern British Columbia (with a territory comprising 11% of the province’s landmass) endured the poverty and exclusion known to many First Nations in Canada. Inspired by the memory of a previously successful era of trading, pre-colonization, Chief Jerry Asp began a series of reforms to restore economic freedom, grounded in historic cultural values and norms.
In retelling a transformation of truly epic proportions, Chief Asp is often called to do so in his capacity as a business icon in Canada. Dig deeper and it is clear his leadership was focused on the social transformation of a people, in which markets were a vital means but not an end. Policymakers are taking note on the international stage.
In 1983 and 1984, 80% of the Tahltan Nation were on welfare and unemployment stood at 98%, following the dispossession of property and other human rights across spanning generations. Severe alcohol and drug problems characterized social life, along with high suicide rates and very low levels of educational attainment.
By 2013, it had all changed: 100% employment, zero suicides and an above-the-national-average graduation rate, from universities to trade schools.
Chief Asp was clear that wealth was always to be created and could never be taken. Federal funding was firmly declined and returned to the government, along with all conditions it required. (Many activists detail cautionary tales of the restrictive constraints accompanying government grants).
Today funds are independently generated in the marketplace. All that is contributed toward the general welfare is locally controlled: the Tahltan Heritage Trust Fund contains C$159 million (US$117 million) set aside for investment in education, environmental management, business opportunities, and future generations.
To empower a community of share owners, Chief Jerry Asp established the Tahltan Development Corporation in the 1980s. Today, it ranks in the top 5% of British Columbia-based businesses.
Equity rights and land titles were key components of wealth creation, including the tradability of those equity rights within the framework established by the Tahltan Central Government – undertaken to protect ‘’the Tahltan inherent aboriginal rights and title’’ and ‘’the eco-systems and natural resources of Tahltan traditional territory’’.
Traded rights have not only been an economic tool, but generated resources for improved environmental outcomes, with the protection of eco-systems a priority at the forefront of community life. The latest is the Tahltan’s a new 3,500-hectare conservancy adjoining the Mount Edziza Provincial Park.
Recently, Skeena Resources Limited and the Tahltan Central Government – who in a historic move now control their own development permitting – announced that they had entered into an investment agreement. The Tahltan Investment Corporation invested C$5 million into Skeena, by purchasing 1,597,138 Tahltan investment rights. The traded investment rights purchased are in turn owned directly by the community members as common shares, providing a direct stake in local projects acquired on the open market.
Chief Asp says we made ‘[p]rovision for the widest possible development of Tahltan business opportunities over which the developer may have control or influence.’’ Such was and remains the confidence in individuals to trade, establish businesses, and determine their destinies.
From 98% unemployment to zero, Chief Asp concludes his keynote addresses and presentations with a point of dignified pride and victorious optimism: ‘’We broke the welfare culture of the Tahltan Nation forever.’’ A single message reverberates not only across North America, but globally: ‘’If the Tahltan can do it, any Indigenous Nation can do it!’’
Garreth Bloor is a former executive politician in South Africa and currently resides in Toronto.