The Aboriginal Relations Committee was formed in 2006 to improve communications between the mining industry and First Nations, and to assist the government to develop consultation models to match evolving court decisions.
Jeremy Wyeth, De Beers’ representative at the Ontario Mining Association, was the first to suggest that the association set up the committee and served as its first chair. He later went on to be the OMA Executive Director for 2007 and 2008. The current chair is Jonathan Fowler, a geologist who has worked at De Beers for 42 years, 28 of which have been spent in Canada.
As an exploration geologist, Fowler was usually one of the first people De Beers sent in to investigate remote areas. In the field, he would talk to hunters and trappers and tell them about the work De Beers was planning. This practice evolved into communicating with local communities then with community leaders. Due to the remoteness of the exploration projects, the locals Fowler dealt with were usually First Nations.
Fowler’s years of experience communicating with local populations in remote communities has gotten him involved in numerous impact agreements with First Nations, serving him well in dealings with indigenous peoples everywhere from northern Canada to South Africa.
Under Fowler’s leadership, the Aboriginal Relations Committee has adopted a mandate that includes fostering closer ties with industry members of the Minister’s Mining Act Advisory Committee and senior government officials, as well as building closer relationships with the leaders of the First Nations and Metis of the province.
The Mining Act Advisory Committee represents a broad cross-section of interests and perspectives ranging from industry associations and Aboriginal representatives, to environmental non-governmental organizations that advise the Minister on Mining Act modernization. The importance of the Mining Act Advisory Committee was acknowledged recently at the Ontario Mining Association’s Annual General Meeting in North Bay, when Michael Gravelle, Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry stated, “This committee has been working diligently to provide support to my Ministry. The group’s expertise and efforts have been critical to the success of the Mining Act modernization process.” Gravelle also noted that it would continue to be “an important partner as we forge ahead with Mining Act modernization.”
The Aboriginal Relations Committee has been quietly carrying out its mandate. Members of the committee have met with Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Stan Beardy, with the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, and the Aboriginal Secretariat. The committee has adopted the De Beers consultation protocol as its engagement model, and has provided input to submissions on Bill 173, the Modernization of the Mining Act, and Bill 191, the Far North Act. It also hosted an information session with the Ministry of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry on the Mining Consultation Workbook. There are also plans to meet with the minister of Natural Resources.
These activities are a mix of behind-the-scenes meetings with various committees, but also include face-to-face meetings with representatives of the First Nations in the province.
The Aboriginal Relations Committee draws on the experience of its members in dealing with First Nations. It is an evolving process that depends on the building of trust through communications. But good communications require a common language and this can be a barrier when dealing with Aboriginals. Most remote Aboriginal communities have good English speakers but some people (elders and those who live off the land) need interpreters. In some of the communities where there is a language problem language workshops have been held to develop terminology for words that do not exist in a local native tongue. In the past the Ontario Geological Survey and De Beers have set up workshops of this kind.
One of the OMA’s initiatives in recent years was the production of a 14-minute video called “Mining New Opportunities”. The project was the collective brainchild of the OMA and was led by a team of professionals in the communications industry. The video was intended to help First Nations residents get a better understanding of the mineral industry and the employment and entrepreneurial opportunities it offers. The film was created by Big Soul, an Aboriginal-owned and -operated television production house. The video, produced in Cree, Oji-Cree, Ojibway, English and French, is available for downloading on the OMA website. Its production was seen as a way to help promote partnerships with First Nations and to allow for greater participation in the social and economic benefits of responsible mineral development. When asked if the production was a success Jonathan Fowler replied, “There were no significant complaints other than why haven’t you done several sequels.”
Another video production, “NickelQuest”, made its debut in 2007. It is a virtual reality DVD that promotes the reality of modern mining. It also is being used by First Nations as an educational tool.
Mining today faces a looming crisis. A large proportion of miners will be retiring and their positions will have to be filled by trained replacements. An obvious source of new labour will be the youth of the First Nations. First Nations are the fastest growing demographic and also have one of the highest unemployment rates. Aboriginals would like to work close to their communities and could fill in the labour gap particularly in remote areas where mines tend to be built.
The OMA encourages companies to work together on training and can give input into training programs.
At De Beers’ Victor project the company worked with Northern College to train workers, but the colleges in Northern Ontario also work together on training courses so as not to duplicate efforts and resources.
To enable local communities to benefit from the work being done by the mining and exploration industry, “Impact Benefit Agreements” or “Memorandums of Understanding” are usually signed by the mining company and the local community. Currently there are at least 35 to 40 such agreements in effect according to Fowler, who cautions that agreements must be reached in a responsible and respectful way.
Typically the agreements include commitments to local employment and training by mining companies. By working through OMA committees such as the Aboriginal Relations Committee Fowler explains, “companies can share bruises and successes” through networking.
One of the earliest such agreements was the Musselwhite Agreement in 1992 between First Nations, Placer Dome Canada, TVX Gold, the Province of Ontario and the Government of Canada. The Musselwhite Agreement defined how First Nations would benefit from the mine and provided a strategy to minimize any possible negative effects. The agreement also established commitments to protect the environment.
The mining industry is reaching out to the country’s First Nations and the Aboriginal Committee is leading the way for Ontario’s mining industry. The outreach is beneficial for both parties. The First Nations have been stewards of the land and the mining companies need their cooperation and input to maintain the quality of the land if they want to proceed with a mining project. On the other hand, First Nations benefit by getting jobs, training and skills that leads to a higher quality of life.