How to make it work
Recent clashes over mineral exploration in Ontario have put a negative spin on the mining industry’s relationship with Aboriginal communities. Of particular note are Platinex Inc.’s dispute with KI in northwest Ontario, and Frontenac Ventures’ problems with First Nations near Sharbot Lake. It is therefore extremely important to look past the moment to see the big picture: the overall progress being made between mining companies and Aboriginal communities.
A good place to start would be the recent memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) of Toronto and the Ottawa-based Assembly of First Nations (AFN), which was signed at the PDAC convention in March 2008. Basically, the MOU says that more will be done to create partnerships between Corporate Canada and Aboriginal communities within the mining industry.
While the MOU is a great accomplishment for both sides, off paper there is a lot more that needs to be done. Companies need to work more closely with individual Aboriginal communities, and clarify some of the economic benefits for the communities that are willing to work with the mineral industry.
“A lot of work has been done to date to try to get the groups together,” says Jack Blacksmith, president of the northern Quebecbased Cree Mineral Exploration Board. “During the PDAC conference, they signed the agreement with AFN to try and find ways to work together, and also to give opportunity to native people to get access to the industry. These are some positive things going on. Certainly there are negative things, but the positives outweigh the negatives.”
Blacksmith says one of the biggest reasons communities may be apprehensive about mineral exploration is because of the lack of communication when companies want to begin exploring the land. “There are tremendous opportunities for the communities to be involved, once they determine how their territory will be affected,” says Blacksmith. “I’ve seen it in several communities in terms of job opportunities that have been acquired, training that’s been acquired, as well as the various other needs of mining like the catering business, the janitor business and so on.”
A big advocate of mining companies working together with native communities is Don Bubar, who is director of the PDAC’s Aboriginal Affairs committee and CEO of Toronto-based Avalon Ventures. He says that the mineral exploration sector offers the best opportunity for people in the remote parts of northern Canada, where there are few other economic opportunities. Bubar makes an interesting point, that mineral exploration is not inconsistent with traditional land use activities of Aboriginal people. For centuries, they have walked the land and made general observations.
He notes, though, that when First Nations people haven’t been adequately consulted, they resist. Many communities do not understand the difference between mineral exploration and mining. “I don’t think there is any quick fix. There needs to be a better flow of information on both sides,” says Bubar. “Aboriginal communities need to have a better understanding of what the mineral exploration sector and mining industry are all about; what the opportunities are; and how mineral exploration can actually be an economic development opportunity of real substance to many of the northern communities that are plagued by social problems resulting from chronic poverty.”
Bubar refers to circumstances in the past involving the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) and Inco that may have contributed to the current situation at Big Trout Lake in northwest Ontario. Prior to Platinex’s involvement in the area, Inco had mineral claims at Big Trout Lake going back to the 1980s, and at that time found that the KI was opposed to anyone working in their traditional territory. Platinex subsequently acquired some of Inco’s mineral claims. Given the historical opposition to mineral exploration and development at Big Trout Lake, Bubar suggests that it should have been clear to Platinex that special efforts would be required to form a positive relationship with the KI before their exploration work would be accepted by the community.
While at times special approaches must be taken, it is important for the mineral exploration industry to realize the benefits of partnering with First Nations. “A close working relationship with Aboriginal people is a natural partnership for the mineral sector. Aboriginal peoples were the first miners in North America. The major discoveries [by European explorers] were really by tips from First Nations people,” says MaryAnn Mihychuk. The director of corporate communications with Winnipeg-based HudBay Minerals is also a director on the PDAC board, and a member of the association’s Land and Regulations and Finance committees. “They have been working with, exploiting or extracting from Mother Nature for 10,000 years,” she continues. “They are natural allies. They appreciate the earth and its bounty.”
It is Mihychuk’s experience that people in First Nations communities want to see benefits, they want to share the jobs, and they want to see their communities grow. She suggests a few reasons why some communities may not want to get involved with the mineral sector, despite the economic payoffs. One of them is that, at times, communities may already be involved in disputes with governments, and mining companies are caught in the middle. At other times, communities may not want to get involved at the exploration stage, preferring to wait until a mine seems likely. “It’s a lot easier when you have something that you’re actually going to be mining,” says Mihychuk.
A contrast can be made between what communities want immediately as opposed to what they are offered, during the mineral exploration stage. Sandra Gogal, a lawyer specializing in Aboriginal law and practising with Miller Thompson LLP, notes that communities no longer just want temporary employment and easy money.
“What’s happening now is that, as the communities become more sophisticated, they’re wanting to partake in the long-term benefits of the project. They no longer see it as upfront jobs and some cash,”says Gogal. “They want to sustain their communities for the future generations to come.”
Mineral exploration and mining can help Aboriginal communities achieve long-term sustainability. What it depends on, as so many experts have said, is strong communications between the community and the company. A strategic approach needs to be taken, with companies listening to and considering the needs of Aboriginal communities, throughout the exploration, mining and closure stages. The good news is that, despite Frontenac’s and Platinex’s confrontations, much has already been done to bring mineral industry opportunities to Aboriginal communities across the country.
Matt Shilton is a final-year journalism student at Humber College in Toronto, and can be reached at [email protected].