The tragedies of multiple suicides in Neskantaga, and the First Nation’s declaration of a state of emergency, should be a wakeup call for everyone involved in trying to push the Ring of Fire ahead.
If there ever is a time for people working in government and in the mining industry to step back and look at the big picture, this is it. Seven tragic deaths have shaken the community of 420 people over the past year. Another 20 people tried to end their own life but failed. Everyone is exhausted, emotionally and physically.
Meanwhile, as councilor Roy Moonias said, Neskantaga is under “overwhelming pressure” from mining companies and governments who want to negotiate with the community on the Ring of Fire mining development.
The situation taking place now is a repeat of what happened in December. At that time Neskantaga was also dealing with youth suicides. A crisis intervention team was in the community. Meanwhile the deadline to respond to the terms of reference on Cliffs’ Natural Resources environmental assessment was coming up quick.
At that time Neskantaga’s only option, if it wanted to respond to an environmental assessment on a project that could profoundly change northern Ontario, was to ask for an extension in light of “exceptional circumstances”.
That was an extreme case, but it highlights a major problem facing nearly every First Nation. When it comes to dealing with industrial development on traditional lands, First Nations are lacking in the capacity to effectively negotiate with multi-million dollar, international mining companies.
In a small community where the majority of people are youth, there are just not a lot of people to take on all the responsibilities of running a community, never mind researching the mining industry, completing the extensive paperwork involved in responding to environmental assessments and negotiating with mining companies on approvals and benefit agreements.
Last year in a Wawatay interview, Chief Leslie Cameron of Wabauskang First Nation explained his community’s situation in regards to mining companies. Wabauskang has 240 members, including youth and Elders. At that time the community had 40 companies, mostly large multinationals, wanting to discuss and negotiate exploration or development work on Wabauskang’s traditional land.
Industry organizations often accuse First Nations of holding back development. Complaints are heard about First Nations requesting money from companies in order to assist with the consultation process. What companies and governments often overlook is that First Nations are strapped for cash and without adequate human capacity to have a fair conversation with multiple mining companies that each have a team of employees set up just to deal with First Nations.
Following Neskantaga’s declaration of a state of emergency, NAN deputy grand chief Alvin Fiddler pointed out that First Nations such as Neskantaga need support from governments to help facilitate discussions with industry. First Nations have to be provided with adequate resources and capacity, he said, so that they can be meaningful partners in developing projects on traditional lands.
Yet the need for additional resources is just one aspect of what is needed. Governments also have to start taking more seriously the challenges faced in communities – challenges such as suicides and drug and alcohol abuse. It is extremely difficult for a community to focus on dealing with requests from mining companies, or environmental assessments, when the leadership has to spend so much time and energy dealing with social issues in the community.
To that end, timelines for responses to environmental assessments and other deadlines related to developments have to be flexible. And wherever possible, governments need to ensure that assessments and other protocols accurately reflect the realities of life in communities.
A Joint Review Panel (JRP) environmental assessment for the Ring of Fire would have been a good start. A JRP, such as what Matawa First Nations are calling for, would have simplified the environmental assessment process for First Nations by bringing the hearings directly to communities, holding them in local languages and giving community members the chance to respond orally during the process. Instead, the comprehensive review that is happening now forces First Nations to respond in writing to long, technical documents – requiring, in many cases, the hiring of expensive experts to assist with the work.
Throughout the early stages of the Ring of Fire discussions, Neskantaga has been one of the most active communities in responding to the environmental assessments and participating in the negotiations with industry and governments. But as the example from last week shows, taking on that heavy responsibility in addition to the multitude of challenges facing a community adds pressures upon pressures. The result is a leadership that is physically and emotionally exhausted – hence less able to participate in the assessment process as it moves further. And that makes meeting the duty to consult challenging, to say the least.