More and more, Canada’s aboriginal communities are taking an active interest in the country’s mineral industries. They protest exploration on lands they believe are theirs. They condemn the environmental record of mining.
Sometimes it is easy for industry insiders to think that protest stems from misinformation. After all we’ve been successfully mining everything from antimony to zinc in this country for well over 100 years. But the road ahead is going to be bumpy.
Two years ago PLATINEX INC. ran afoul of the KITCHENUHMAYHOOSIB INNINUWYG (KI) when it announced plans to drill for PGE deposits near Big Trout Lake in northern Ontario. The KI claim the land as part of their traditional hunting grounds. Allegations and lawsuits have flown. The matter has been before the courts more than once. Finally, late last year the Ontario Superior Court sided with Platinex, giving the company permission to resume drilling as long as the two sides continue to talk and consult.
We in the mineral industry know that exploration trenching, sampling and drilling disturbs relatively little surface area and the effects can be mitigated. But it matters to the KI band what happens to this remote corner of the province.
An hour west of Ottawa, the Ardoch Algonquin and Sharbot Obaadjiwan First Nations communities are protesting uranium exploration near Sharbot Lake. The area is cottage country, rural and scenic, but FRONTENAC VENTURES wants to test for potential deposits of a much-sought-after fuel metal. Talks between the two sides aimed at ending a blockade of the area collapsed. Two native leaders have been fined for their activities and one of them is to be jailed for six months.
The act of exploration does not automatically mean a uranium mine will be developed. In fact, the chances of finding a minable deposit are very slim, indeed. The protestors need to be reminded of this, and of the permitting process that gives them many opportunities to put the brakes on a new mine project.
ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENCE has produced a study that included First Nations peoples living downstream from Alberta’s oil sands developments, charging that the federal government is “missing in action” when it comes to the toxic legacy of those projects. The native community says it fears its drinking water supply has been contaminated resulting in abnormal disease rates in their communities. Added to that are large amounts of airborne pollutants.
Canada’s oil sands producers are aware of their environmental responsibilities. They acknowledge the high water usage in their processes, and they are making strides to reduce it. They are also spending billions to cut hazardous airborne emissions. But their efforts take time.
I believe Canada’s aboriginal peoples have a role to play in the mineral industry. Their role has already begun as the “environmental conscience” of the industry. No one knows the land and water better than people who have been sustained by it for thousands of years.
Somewhere between preserving the wilderness as it was and exploiting it for modern conveniences, there is a compromise. That compromise will include cleaner technologies, better remediation, education and skilled jobs for Canadians regardless of their ethnicity. Compromise is not reached by confrontation.