Mines and Aboriginal Neighbours
A solution has been found in recent years to combat the lack of trust and co- operation that has commonly existed between mining companies wanting to exploit minerals and the neighbouring Aboriginal communities. The solution is driven by the fact that the two groups need each other. Through respectful communication, most differences can be sorted out and a suitable conclusion reached, without government or judicial intervention.
Most minerals in Canada are in places inhabited or used predominantly by First Nations people, and they can’t be exploited without the neighbours’ assent. The local communities are obviously interested in whether and how those minerals will be exploited, and how that could give them an economic foundation. This makes even more sense, considering that many First Nations communities have the highest unemployment rates and poverty in the country.
Although mining companies and associations in many areas of the country are working on improving Aboriginal relations, British Columbia (the focus of this issue) has made particular headway in helping companies and interested First Nations communities find common ground. Many recent agreements are leading to the development of properties, in ways that are least disruptive to the land and most beneficial to the local people.
An example is the private company Eagle Rock Materials, formed in 2002 by the public company Polaris Minerals with the Hupacasath and Ucluelet First Nations. Eagle Rock’s goal is to produce high quality construction aggregates for marine shipment from the quarry on Port Alberni Inlet, Vancouver Island, to zones of major construction along the Pacific coast, especially San Francisco Bay and the Los Angeles Basin. The company’s quarry of high-grade granite has the potential to become one of the region’s largest volume, lowest cost producers, with a lifespan estimated at over a century. The mine permit was received in 2003, but no start date has been announced, as the company is seeking potential markets.
Besides benefiting from the direct job and training opportunities for members of the nearby Hupacasath and Ucluelet groups, and chances for local businesses to benefit, these two communities have each taken a 15% ownership position in Eagle Rock Materials with representation on the board.
This is one of the case studies described in the Mineral Exploration, Mining and Aboriginal Community Engagement Guidebook, written by Dan Jepsen et al. and presented in 2005 by the Association for Mineral Exploration British Columbia. The Guidebook presents not idealistic notions but pragmatic advice of how to make deals that really work, whether or not the Aboriginal groups have already signed treaties with the government.
Dealing with strangers, getting to know their needs and communicating your own, and working out compromise solutions is uncomfortable and difficult. But we need to do it for the sake of the children and future generations who will live in First Nations communities.
In the Guidebook, Judith Sayers, chief councillor of the Hupacasath First Nation, says, “We quite quickly focused on the potential for strengthening our most important assets–our young people. Eagle Rock’s future employment opportunities provide tangible incentive and purpose for our youth to pursue advanced education and skill development.”
That says it all.