TORONTO (miningweekly.com) – Engagement and consultation between mining and exploration companies and the First Nations is one of the most pressing issues for the Canadian sector today.
Get it right and a project will move forward more smoothly and with the additional benefit of robust support from aboriginal communities keen to assist in the success; get it wrong and a legal quagmire will almost certainly lay ahead, with project development hindered or even halted. The damage done to the corporate image can also be both lasting and deep.
Some aboriginal communities inherently distrust the industry, pointing to some of the sector’s previous transgressions, while others may simply want to keep their territory free from any development whatsoever.
“Many aboriginal peoples like the remoteness of their communities,” Manitoba East Side Road Authority aboriginal economic development manager Norma Spence told Mining Weekly Online. “A lot of communities have had such bad experiences with the industry in the past that it’s hard for them to believe that nothing bad will happen to their lands.”
Spence is also the Council for the Advancement of Native Development Officers’ (Cando's) president and director for Manitoba.
But many other communities welcome mining as an important source of economic development, happy to engage with companies that are willing to listen carefully to their concerns. This is why consultation early and often is essential.
“You have to be involved right from the start and the aboriginal people have to know exactly what you are doing, why you’re doing it, and how they are involved,” Spence said.
“In addition, you can’t say: ‘okay well that’s enough’. You have to keep communicating until a community is happy with what you’re doing,” she explained. “It takes time and can be a long, drawn-out process. But it will save a lot of headaches in the end.”
From the outset, First Nations should have representation at the highest levels when formulating impact benefit agreements, she added.
“The most successful impact benefit agreements are those negotiated with an aboriginal community right from the start,” she said. “And when you’re doing an impact benefit agreement with a community, it can’t be a matter of saying: ‘this is what you are going to get’.”
The absence of strategic planning by some aboriginal communities to outline their approach to natural resources can also prove to be a stumbling block. It is an issue First Nations communities should address if they have not already done so.
“As part of our Cando workshops, we’ve been talking with communities about the importance of having a community strategic plan,” Spence said.
“A community should ask themselves what they want,” she added. “Do you want the community to work with the mining sector? Or does the community have other ideas, such as ecotourism?”
Companies should assist those bands without strategic plans and do this before they discuss mining or exploration, she said, adding that more investment needs to come from federal and provincial governments whenever this issue arises.
“If a community says ‘we don’t have a strategic plan’, then industry should assist and connect the community with the various government programmes available to support this,” she said.
First Nations can also find support and advice from other aboriginal communities that have established their own strategies and resources plans.
In this regard, the Wahnapitae First Nation near Capreol, northern Ontario, has worked closely with other aboriginal bands, sharing the technique of how to develop a clear, consistent and flexible resource strategy.
“One of our responsibilities is assisting other First Nation communities who don’t have that capacity,” Wahnapitae director of sustainable development Peter Recollet told Mining Weekly Online.
“We give them the template that works for us and fits our needs. Another community can adapt it to fit their requirements,” he added.
SEAL THE DEAL
The Wahnapitae have interacted with both majors and juniors within their territory. “We work with Glencore, Vale and KGHM. Then we have agreements with some junior exploration companies, for example, Wallbridge Mining and Mohawk Garnet,” Recollet said.
The band was spurred into developing their strategy following acid discharge from a waste pile that polluted the local water system in 1999.
“That was a huge eye-opener for the Wahnapitae and led us to asserting our jurisdictional rights in our traditional territories,” Recollet said. “In turn, we created our resource development policy.”
“Our community started by asking itself: ‘should we be involved in mining? If so, then how so? If not, then why not?’ This was followed by a lot of community information sessions that led to a community survey on the mineral industry.”
“Once we had a validation from the community, we developed a mineral industry strategy based on community input from the survey,” he said. “From there, once we had our draft strategy in place, we went back to our members and said: ‘have we heard you? Are we on track?’ So there was another validation required.”
“We’ve gone through many versions since, updating and evolving the policy as our capacity grows,” he added. “We’ve successfully demonstrated this [model] in our relationships with Glencore, KGHM and Vale, [while our] resource development policy is still being monitored by the community.”
Central to the Wahnapitae’s success has been the formation of a specialist team of community members and comprising an anthropologist, biologist, botanist, geologist and various legal experts.
“We have a well-rounded internal team that is able to respond to the area’s numerous mining activities,” Recollet said, adding that a community scholarship programme continues to produce successful graduates who go on to work in the wider industry.
Overall, there is still much work to be done, although both Recollet and Spence are optimistic about the future of First Nation resource strategies. “But we’ve a long way to go,” Spence said. “Still, don’t forget that we’ve come a long way too.”