Canadian Court Ruling Encourages Firms to Seek Cooperation Before Digging Begins, Creating Frustration Over Cost
TORONTO—Annita McPhee, the leader of the 5,000-member Tahltan First Nation in British Columbia, recalls mining-company executives seeking the nation’s chieftains’ permission to dig for coal next to their land.
“They walked in and handed us all blankets, and we were like, ‘What do we need blankets for?’ ” she says. “We showed them the door.”
Lesson one in mining in the mineral-rich, indigenous-inhabited Canadian territories: avoid stereotypes, Ms. McPhee advised executives gathered early this month at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada International Convention, the world’s second-largest mining conference.
After bypassing indigenous peoples in Canada, who inhabit some of the richest lands in the world, mining companies increasingly are realizing that they can’t just hand out blankets and begin drilling. That is creating frustrations among some miners who believe that their commercial rights are being subverted to aboriginal rights, adding cost and inconvenience.
The companies are under new pressure to comply with a 2004 Supreme Court of Canada ruling giving the country’s aboriginal peoples the right to review land-use decisions by mining companies that might affect their legal right to harvest, hunt and fish on lands they don’t own. Mining companies say the best strategy is to avoid court battles by getting aboriginal groups to agree in writing to mining projects before drilling begins.
When a proposed mine is on land directly owned by an aboriginal group, the mining company has to negotiate and pay a royalty.
Canada’s indigenous peoples, such as the Inuit, Metis and First Nations—they reject “tribes”as demeaning—are asserting their rights, while realizing that while they reside on or near great mineral wealth, such as a billion-ton iron-ore deposit on the Arctic island of Baffin, they have few means to tap those resources. The Inuit, known to some as Eskimos, administer the Nunavut territory in the north, an area twice the size of Texas, and have fewer than 10 geologists, leaders say.
Talks and possible tensions between indigenous people and mining companies center around two areas: environmental standards for mining and the amount of direct financial compensation aboriginal groups should receive for mining on or near their lands. Another issue is the number of mining-related jobs that go to aboriginal peoples.
Canada is the world’s biggest miner of zinc and uranium and among the top producers of gold, nickel and a host of other minerals. Mining companies are planning $140 billion of investments in the next decade, according to the Mining Association of Canada.
In the Great North, many of Canada’s over 600 aboriginal communities own or have review rights on swaths of mineral-rich land, each with their own cultures and customs, and increasingly are asserting their rights in court battles, sit-ins and blockades.
“This is a political, legal and practical issue that is big and getting bigger,” says Tracy Pratt, a partner with Toronto-based law firm Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, which sponsored the aboriginal-outreach programs at the PDAC convention.
The divide between miners and indigenous peoples prompted an unusual series of sessions at the mining convention, which began with an elder with the native Cree nation, Andrew Wesley, performing a “smudging” ceremony that involved burning sage and reciting a prayer.
The sessions also stressed sending in a chief executive, instead of a middle manager, to negotiate with aboriginal peoples.
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