From roadblocks to building blocks Noront works on Aboriginal relations – by V. Heffernan (CIM Magazine – February, 2011)

Founded in 1898, the Canadian Institute of Mining, Metallurgy and Petroleum (CIM) is a technical society of professionals in the Canadian minerals, metals, materials and energy industries.

Toronto-based Noront Resources has stepped up its efforts to work with the communities in the vast 5,000-square-kilometre area of the James Bay Lowlands, where mineralization abounds under traditional Aboriginal land.

As the largest claim holder in the camp, the junior has dedicated a significant part of its annual budget to establishing working relationships with the local communities, including Marten Falls and Webequie, the Aboriginal communities most affected by exploration activities. It is expected that all communities in the region will stand to benefit as the region moves closer to development and government becomes involved in regional infrastructure building.

“One of our main focuses is on the youth in Webequie and Marten Falls,” says Wes Hanson, president and CEO of Noront, who declined to attach a dollar figure to the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) program in the area. “We are encouraging them to stay in school and continue their education. We want to show the young students that there are potential jobs in mining that will allow them to live in the community and, at the same time, work at their careers.”

The company has established a bursary to acknowledge students who have demonstrated leadership, shown academic excellence, act as role models or inspire others to further their education. Two of the 2009 award recipients used the bursary to enroll in a diamond drilling course, while another is using the award to pay for flight training fees and expenses. The company also supports, and is represented on, the board of DAREarts, an educational-based arts program focused on engaging at-risk youth. DAREarts has had a successful annual program in Webequie for the past three years, and this year, a similar program has been introduced to Marten Falls.

Last August, Noront and Mining Matters, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s mining education charitable organization, joined forces to create a youth outreach program for the two communities. The Mining Matters summer camps, sponsored by Noront, the Ontario Ministry of Mines, Northern Development and Forestry and the Ontario Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, were intended to educate local youth about exploration and mining and to encourage them to consider careers in the sector. Based on camp attendance and community feedback, Noront believes the camps were highly successful.

Forging relationships

The efforts undertaken by Noront to establish positive relations with Aboriginal groups is a good model for other exploration companies, says Scott Jacob, a former Webequie First Nation Chief now working with Noront. “The communities would like to ensure that there is minimal impact on the environment and support for training and employment opportunities,” says Jacob, who notes that the unemployment rate in Webequie is currently about 80 per cent. “The communities want direct employment, but also support for First Nations businesses so people can get the employment that they need.”

Jacob uses the Webequie First Nation’s joint venture agreement with Winnipeg-based Cyr Drilling, signed two years ago, as an example. Webequie has a 20 per cent interest in Cyr Drilling Ontario, a subsidiary of the parent company that is focusing on the Ring of Fire exploration camp. In 2013, the First Nation group will have the option to purchase full ownership. Noront is supporting that partnership and in 2011 Cyr will be Noront’s only drilling contractor.

Two-month blockade

Relations between the First Nation communities and exploration companies were not always so good. Earlier in 2010, First Nations groups staged a blockade of the landing strips for the Ring of Fire, essentially shutting down exploration in the area for two months. The protest was intended to emphasize that mining companies must consult the community before they explore on traditional Aboriginal land, a position supported by Noront.

The blockade was lifted in March, but the protesters threatened to block exploration again if conditions did not improve within six months. In June, Noront signed an Exploration Agreement with Webequie First Nation, including a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that establishes protocols for conducting exploration activities on traditional lands. Noront is working on updating an Exploration Agreement and signing a similar MOU with the Marten Falls First Nation.

Noront has taken a progressive approach to community relationships, and in 2009, they established a First Nations Advisory Board comprised of global Aboriginal leaders.  The board was established to advise Noront on best practices with respect to Aboriginal affairs.

In late 2010, Noront launched and a consultation portal (www.mikawaa.com) that allows community members and all stakeholders to communicate directly with Noront and each other about the project. The portal will grow as the project advances and will provide a site where Noront can provide regular updates about its plans.

“We have worked hard on our community relationships; we now have higher levels of trust and understanding than we have had in the past,” states Hanson.“We believe that these efforts go a long way in avoiding future work disruptions.”

Future challenges

Hanson says one of the biggest challenges the company has faced so far is trying to manage community expectations for the Ring of Fire, a job that is not made any easier by claims that the region contains billions of dollars worth of metals deposits.  Ongoing work to advance the Ring of Fire projects includes further technical studies, economic evaluations, project financing and economic permitting. Considering the time line for these activities, the Ring of Fire companies are still a long way from making production decisions.

“The communities suffer from high levels of unemployment and they would like to see environmentally responsible economic development and job creation happen now,” says Hanson. “Balancing the community desire for immediate development, with a realistic project development schedule, is one of our biggest challenges.”

In 2009, Noront completed Canada’s first NI 43-101 technical report on a chromite deposit and in March 2010, they updated the technical report for the Eagle’s Nest polymetallic deposit. The company is now focusing on advancing the Eagles Nest Deposit through various technical studies while continuing to explore other areas in the region as potential sources of additional resources. Noront recently raised additional funds to continue responsible exploration and resource evaluation in the Ring of Fire.

“CSR programs in Canadian mining and exploration operations are emerging and developing,” notes Hanson. “To some degree, Canadian companies operating abroad will develop CSR practices but may not necessarily continue these programs while operating in Canada. I don’t believe there is another exploration company in this country that has taken their CSR program to the level we have. In the long road of exploration and mine development, we believe this investment will ultimately show significant returns for our shareholders.”

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