Creating opportunities for the First Nations
News stories are surfacing regularly of desperate situations in First Nations communities across the country that go well beyond poverty. Local industries can provide an economic injection big enough to turn the situation around for many communities.
Last fall I paid a visit to Cominco’s Red Dog mine in Alaska (the article will appear in the April 2001 issue). The operating manager, Tim Smith, confided that, in dealing with the logistical, weather, and regulatory problems as well as a large proportion of workforce drawn from the local Inupiat population, “…sometimes it’s hard to remember that we’re trying to make zinc.”
Nevertheless, Cominco and its First Nations partner, the Nana Development Corporation, are successfully operating Red Dog, the world’s largest zinc mine, while doing the right things for the local populace: encouraging kids to stay in school, supporting young adults in job training and university education, and employing people from the nearby villages to work as hard and as well as the “southern” employees.
The mining industry has a role to play in helping the First Nations. The future lies in bolstering the economies of regions where there is exploration and mining. It lies in meticulous attention to responsible development, so that only environmentally and economically sound work is carried out. It lies in cutting local residents in on the deals, so there are no losers.
That ideal is already a reality at Ontario’s Musselwhite gold mine north of Pickle Lake, where owners Placer Dome Inc. and TVXNA are working overtime to employ First Nations people. At least one of the diamond plays in Ontario’s James Bay Lowlands will likely become a mine; it is hoped that the provincial government will require the companies to make fair agreements with the region’s First Nations groups before permits will be granted. Certainly the current mines minister, Tim Hudak, is leaning in this direction (see page 13 of this issue).
People sigh about the difficulties of employing northern residents–a general lack of formal education and industrial work experience; the frequent absenteeism or quitting after being trained; the degree of alcohol or substance abuse.
Some managers have to deal with these very real problems every week. As much as they may want to, they cannot cure all the ills. However, it is the responsibility for every mining company that intends to work in regions occupied by First Nations people to make sure the local residents get a fair deal and more, and that when the projects end, or the mines eventually close, the local community is healthier in every way. Otherwise, the Sustainability Reports that they publish won’t ring true to anyone’s ears.