Canadian Indigenous Communities & Mining Companies: Realities, progress and expectations
- The regulatory regime established in the Northwest Territories (NWT) has helped document the commitments, responsibilities, and benefits surrounding large investment and resource development projects. Although it forces a lengthy approval process, it has helped Indigenous communities develop a more positive perspective of mining and resource development as it brings clarity to all communities involved and allows them to review and renegotiate over time.
- A social license to operate is based on the judgment of the Indigenous communities and groups who are impacted, not on a universal code of good conduct. Therefore, it’simportant to understand the distinctions in governance of Indigenous, First Nation or Aboriginal groupsas expectations will vary, leading to ambiguity about what Canadian mining companies need to live up to.
- To build a successful partnership with First Nations, mining companies must engage with them from the very beginning. By recognizing and respecting their rights and interests, mining companies will have a very real economic impact. On the flip side, if their trust is not earned, First Nations will avoid interaction, making it difficult to build anything, solve problems or get started on resource development.
There is potential and opportunity for resource development on Indigenous lands. I invite the government and industry to work with us to identify potential partnerships and projects. But first, learn who we are as Indigenous, Aboriginal and First Nations peoples; spend time with us, understand our culture and the region where we live. This relationship-building is vital to progressive development and should not be outsourced and pushed off to consultants.
What role do Canadian mining projects play in Indigenous economic development? Do Indigenous communities want more of them?
From our own experiences, the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) recognizes the potential mineral exploration and mining activity can generate for our settlement through revenue, jobs and investment opportunities. Our expectations are broadening too; we seek to have an equity stake in mining projects to ensure future economic and social development for our people.
Indigenous people are not opposed to mining development that is sustainable and responsible, but ourpriorities remain the same: preserve and protect the environment, and the future wellbeing of our people in terms of culture and our way of life.Therefore, for development to take place on our lands, the benefits must outweigh the negative impacts. And, as the representative of the Gwich’in people,a big part of my mandateis to develop the strategy that will require mining companies to work with greater transparency throughout the life cycle of their projects. Greater transparency must be guaranteed through formal agreements that ensure informational and distributive fairness, as well as a remediation plan.
“Our expectations are broadening too; we seek to have an equity stake in mining projects to ensure future economic and social development for our people.”
Although imperfect—in length and in streamlining information—these regulations have helped develop a more positive perspective of mining and resource development on our lands. Procedural governance helps bring clarity to all Indigenous communities involved, and allows us to review and renegotiate over time.
Has the Canadian mining industry achieved enough social license and stakeholder buy-in to be considered an aspirational global model for other countries to follow? What are the areas in which we struggle with this and what should be done about them?
I don’t think it’s possible for the Canadian mining industry to have a perfect track record because a social license to operate is based on the judgement of the Indigenous communities and groups who are impacted, not on a universal code of good conduct.Depending on which area of the world it operates, what a social license looks like varies with each Indigenous community.
In Canada alone, the Indigenous, Aboriginal and First Nations ecosystem is very complex, and resource development will impact lives differently south or north of the 60th parallel. For example, there are only two reserves in the North and many in the South. The Gwich’in people are not on reserve, but we are signatories of numbered Treaty 11 from 1921and the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement from 1992, which affirms and defines our inherent rights to lands as well as rights to the negotiation of self-government.
“It’s very important to understand the distinctions in governance because expectations will vary within Indigenous, Federal or Territorial bodies, leading to ambiguity about what Canadian mining companies need to live up to.”
In comparison, my friends in leadership positions south of the 60th parallel operate differently because of the reserve system and the Indian Act policies, which are discriminatory and outdated.
Indigenous communities from one province to the next may have a good relationship with the provincial or territorial governments and industry players. For others, their rights might not still be recognized, are not involved or do not receive any benefits from resource development projects. It’s very important to understand the distinctions in governance because expectations will vary within Indigenous, Federal or Territorial bodies, leading to ambiguity about what Canadian mining companies need to live up to.
How would you define a “successful partnership” between First Nations and Canada’s mining industry?
First, companies need to talk directly to Indigenous communities and maintain an open line of communication from the start. There is opportunity for resource development in our region and I invite the Prime Minister and other Canadian leaders to work with us to identify potential partnerships and projects.
“By interacting directly with us, leaders will gain awareness of our local needs and systems, and will be more likely to gain our support.”
However, I believe that relationship-building is not a task that can be outsourced and pushed off to consultants. Even today, too many decisions-makers still don’t know us. They don’t learn who we are as the Gwich’in people, spend time with us, understand our culture and the region where we live. By interacting directly with us, leaders will gain awareness of our local needs and systems, and will be more likely to gain our support.
It has been one of my objectives to raise our profile with government and industry players. Awareness is increasing; for the first time, the Government of the Northwest Territories (GNWT) invited me to attend the Prospector & Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference in Toronto in 2018, and to speak on a few panels on Aboriginal perspectives. It is a good avenue to raise the Gwich’in Tribal Council’s and Gwich’in Development Corporation’s profiles.
“Creating an economic opportunity together will have a very real economic impact for mining companies seeking to develop on our land.”
A relationship that recognizes and honours our rights and interests as First Nations is more likely to build successful partnerships. Creating an economic opportunity together will have a very real economic impact for mining companies seeking to develop on our land.On the flip side, if we can’t trust industry players, we’ll avoid interacting with them, which will make it hard to build anything, solve problems or get started on resource development.
How successful have government bodies, such as NRCan, been in engaging Aboriginal participation in the consulting, planning, development, and benefit sharing life cycle of mining and minerals projects?
Damaged lands and territories caused by companies building mines and developing oil fields are a familiar scene to Indigenous communities around the world. Despite the challenges that exist, mining development and operations are going in the right direction in Canada.
NRCan does play a role in guiding companies to go in the right direction and do things the right way. For example, the creation of co-management boards was fundamental in requiring mining companies to engage with Indigenous communities. For context, the Mackenzie Valley Resources Management Act (MVRMA) created co-management boards to carry out land use planning, regulate the use of land and water and, if required, conduct environmental assessments and reviews of large or complex projects. It also provides for the creation of a Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program and an environmental audit to be conducted once every five years.
“Companies and resource projects […] will continue to reach breakthroughs when all parties are engaged right from the beginning, throughout the project and until completion, no matter the length of the project.”
Companies and resource projects—whether in mining, exploration or development—will continue to reach breakthroughs when all parties are engaged right from the beginning, throughout the project and until completion, no matter the length of the project.Since the formation of the co-management boards, the mining industry now has more direct contact with Indigenous communities. There is also an increase in awareness surrounding the several land claim agreements and self-government agreements. This rise in engagement shows improvement and recognition of our rights.
How can we incentivize Canada’s Aboriginal youth to develop the interests and skill sets to lead Canada’s mining and minerals economy into the future, and what we must do to ensure that they gain access to such academic and employment opportunities?
It is the responsibility of the Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) and leadership within the Gwich’in community to create employment opportunities for our youth. However, we need support. Industry players and government can help us in strategizing key partnerships and investing in training programs that help prepare our youth for future jobs.
The interest to get formal training and have a career in mining is clear; several of our community members—young and old—are leaving home on a rotational basis to go work in the mines in the Northwest Territories and Yukon. Some are even going farther South.
“Government can support Canada’s Aboriginal youth by continuing to invest in regional youth councils, and federal and territorial youth programs that empower them to develop their digital and technical skills, and encourage them to travel across the country and learn from different environments.”
There is also a rise of the clean energy economy which creates new, exciting growth markets, such as solar and wind energy farms. In the Yukon and NWT, for example, the Gwich’in people are engaged in solar and wind turbine projects throughout their communities.
Another way government can support Canada’s Aboriginal youth is by continuing to invest in regional youth councils, and federal and territorial youth programs that empower them to develop their digital and technical skills, and encourage them to travel across the country and learn from different environments.With programs such as these, they will be better equipped to return home and contribute to creating future opportunities for their communities.
Part of the Future of Mining Series presented by: