This article was first published in Northern Ontario Business, a newspaper that has been providing northerners with relevant and insightful editorial content, business news and information for over 25 years.
First Nation approval was key in Canadian Arrow Mine’s gradual development of its highly-prospective Kenbridge nickel deposit in northwestern Ontario.
At a spring awards gala of the northwestern Ontario mining fraternity, a speaker at the podium described the rugged (and somewhat shadowy) individual freedom of the prospector.
“It happens in the bush, where no one knows what you’re doing, and you move from place to place.”
Secrecy, deception and pipe dreams have all been part of mining lore.
Yet Canadian Arrow Mines president Kim Tyler never could quite fathom over his 27-year mining career why the industry chooses to keep matters close to the vest.
“There’s more to be gained in sharing information than in being secretive.” says the former geologist for Inco, Teck-Cominco, Royal Oak Mines and Rio Tinto.
Management of the Sudbury junior miner, which intends to build an open-pit and underground nickel-copper mine near Sioux Narrows, adopted a straightforward approach to public relations. “It’s no big secret.”
First impressions are lasting ones and no mining company wants their name linked with roadblocks and controversy over some misunderstanding.
Aboriginal people today are demanding a say in what happens on their constitutionally-protected traditional lands and they want to reap some of the economic benefits.
First Nations realize they can provide a workforce to help the industry grow, or they can bring exploration and development to a shuddering halt.
The staking rush in this corner of northwestern Ontario, close to the Manitoba border, is prime exploration ground.
Tyler’s outfit is one of more than 50 searching for base metals, gold, uranium, molybdenum and diamonds in the Kenora-Dryden area. Hot mineral commodity prices have sent many enterprising juniors charging back into many old mining camps or staking largely under-explored ground.
His company’s flagship Kenbridge deposit, when brought into production in 2010, will provide 150 jobs over an eight-to-ten year mine of life of open pit and underground production.
Like many areas in the northwest, Canadian Arrow’s property had not any seen significant activity since an exploration shaft was sunk on the property by Falconbridge in the 1950s.
For many area residents, First Nation people included, mineral exploration is an entirely new experience for a region that’s traditionally relied on forestry.
Soon after acquiring the Kenbridge property in 2006, which sits on Anishinaabe Nation traditional land, Canadian Arrow picked up the phone to the Grand Council of Treaty 3 asking who they should consult with in seeking permission to further explore.
That considerate act put them in good stead with folks from the four First Nation communities in the immediate watershed. They gave authorization for a road into the future mine site and plan to honour the company with an upcoming traditional ceremony to show their support.
Treaty 3 technical advisor Clifford Bob, who arranged the consultations, describes the relationship with Canadian Arrow as good one that was solidified with a “handshake in the bush.”
“It’s been progressing pretty well.”
The 28 communities in Treaty 3 stretch from Red Lake in the north, to Fort Frances in the south, and east to Thunder Bay, comprising almost 20,000 people.
All too often, says Bob, Aboriginal hunters and trappers unexpectedly come across mineral exploration sites and start to ask questions. Many times, the communities find out about activity from company press releases. It doesn’t always get relations off on the right foot.
With a signed memorandum of understanding with Canadian Arrow, Bob is excited about the emerging opportunities from Canadian Arrow and other junior miners in the area.
The Treaty 3 Great Earth Law, first put on paper in 1993, acts as a framework for guiding consultations. It sets out standards of showing respect for the environment, Aboriginal values and treaty rights concerning their traditional lands.
“There’s nothing in there that we wouldn’t want to do anyhow,” says Tyler.
Rather than press ahead with their work, Tyler knows taking the time to carefully and painstakingly explain the groundwork helps promote themselves as good corporate citizens.
“We knew right away we would have to put the energy into going out and making sure others understood what we were doing.
It was that progressive-minded attitude and a public relations blitz across the region that earned Canadian Arrow recognition last spring as the Developer of the Year at the Northwestern Ontario Mines and Minerals Symposium.
Tyler says developing a mine is no different than building a doughnut shop or erecting a retaining wall in the backyard of his Sudbury home. There’s a duty to notify and explain to the municipality and your neighbours about what your plans are.
“It’s about dignity and respect. Nobody likes to be treated otherwise no matter what your cultural background is.”
Although it’s a long way before they get into the details of an impact benefit agreement, for now it’s a trust-building exercise. “It’s a dance where you get to know your partner as you go forward,” says Tyler.
“Cross-culturally there is a lot the mining industry has to do to educate and assure people. The mining industry does not want to be carrying this albatross of what happened in the past.”
Aboriginal rights and mining development are a key issue under discussion to modernize Ontario’s Mining Act. Among the questions put forward are basic transparency ones, on how First Nations should be engaged prior to early exploration, post-claim staking and moving toward advanced exploration and eventual development.
Making changes to the act have taken on a greater urgency because of recent jailings of Aboriginal leaders for blockading mineral exploration in Frontenac County, near Kingston, and at Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (Big Trout Lake) in northwestern Ontario.
Ontario Prospectors Association director Garry Clark admits both industry and the government are trying to do a better job of educating the Native and non-Native public of what the mineral sector is all about.
“Everyone worries there’s going to be a mine as soon as the staker finishes staking. Exploration is a one in 10,000 shot of a prospect ever becoming a mine.
“There’s so many checks and balances before anything ever occurs.”
Although government has a legal responsible to consult with Aboriginal communities, there’s been much talk about what their role should be in the entire exploration process.
Clark views it as a purely educational one in making all people aware of what the process is, and what could happen on the landscape.
In many cases, he says, First Nations would rather cut their own exclusive and confidential deals with a mining company rather than have government at the table.
Whether it’s right or wrong, “that’s the only thing on the landscape that’s working,” says Clark. Some completed impact benefit agreements — with the parties’ names blanked out — are circulated among communities and companies for reference.
Clark says the wants and needs of individual communities can vary. It can involve a mutual understanding of what the community’s traditional values and pursuits are, and awareness of culturally and environmentally sensitive sites.
For instance, flying an airborne survey during spring goose hunting may frighten birds away from a traditional hunting spot.
More development-minded bands want companies to leave money behind by staying at area hotels, and contracting local suppliers and labour for camp jobs. Gradually, as the development progresses, the arrangement may progress to industry-related youth training opportunities such as line-cutters.
Still, some Far North communities, says Clark, simply don’t want or are ready for mineral exploration.
The Ontario government has developed a mineral exploration protocol for companies to follow and are encouraging the public to have their say in helping update the Mining Act this fall. The policy issues being reviewed relate to Aboriginal consultation, surface and mineral rights of landowners, and access to Crown and private land.