On November 2, 2010, federal Environment Minister Jim Prentice announced that the government had rejected a proposed development in British Columbia by
Vancouver-based Taseko Mines. Two days later, B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell announced his resignation. It is quite likely that the Prime Minister’s decision
to block the massive development in one of the province’s hardest hit areas was probably the last straw for the premier.
This story helps illustrate the increasing influence First Nations have in the mineral development industry. The province had approved the $800 million
development in January 2010, pointing out the hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars worth of tax revenue the project would generate. But an
unprecedented opposition by the Tsilhqot'in First Nation in the area was so impassioned that one elder from the community claimed she was willing to
protest in her wheelchair armed with her shotgun. Others stated solemnly that they were willing to give up their lives in order to protect this land. The
inflammatory conditions resulting from the opposition by First Nations are what likely forced the Harper government to reject this project. After all, what
government wants to have a full-blown war with First Nations over development, especially before an election?
Earlier this year, the financial sector got a wake-up call about the importance of building strong relationships with First Nations. Flow-through shares
(FTSs) allow the exploration industry to raise capital by passing on a tax benefit available to the industry to the purchaser of FTSs. But if the money
raised by the company is not spent, the purchaser of the FTS does not get the benefit. This is a critical detail for the financial sector, and it is what
had some people sweating during this past winter’s Ring of Fire blockade by Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations. Bay Street is becoming acutely aware
of the power and influence that First Nation communities yield in the resource sector, and the heat is on to ensure that relationships and consultations
continue to stay top of mind for industry and government.
Communities are increasingly realizing that in order to assert their treaty rights, they have to be more assertive about their lands — an often costly
proposition for both sides. It is not ideal and it might lead to the unhealthy situation in which communities feel that their only recourse is to deny,
through physical means, any access to projects. A recent study by Harvard Law School of the effects of mining on First Nations in British Columbia — which
focused on the experiences of the Takla Lake First Nation — concluded that mining laws are in contravention of international and constitutional laws,
stacked against First Nations, favour industry, and lack any consideration of shared decision-making, revenue-sharing or fair compensation. In order to fix
this problem, the report recommends that mining companies must acknowledge that indigenous peoples have special rights and interests, and take them into
account in their transactions with First Nations. They can do so by increasing consultation efforts and negotiating, in a fair and transparent manner, to
share the benefits of mining. But it needs to be a two-way street. First Nations need to internally determine their needs, and what types of consultation
and benefits they need, and then clearly convey these preferences to industry and government.
In spite of all the signs that show the need for improved communication, there is still immense resistance from even the big industry players to properly
consult and work with communities. Moving forward, there needs to be a greater investment by government and industry to educate communities and industry on
how to work and consult with First Nation communities. But how do these parties learn to communicate with each other in a productive way? Well, there are
some exciting things happening in this area.
At Learning Together, for example, we are working on a project to help increase the number of Aboriginal workers employed in the mining industry. In
partnership with Goldcorp, we have developed a pilot program to work within communities to assess and identify candidates, to provide training, support and
mentors, and to properly prepare community members to work in all areas of the industry. This project helps to address one of the biggest issues that
communities and industry face: community members jumping into employment positions for which they are neither trained nor suited. Once the pilot program is
complete, we plan to develop a national strategy to improve the employment outlook across the country.
Juan Carlos Reyes is one of the founders of Learning Together
and has been its executive director since 2008. He has nearly 15 years of mining and Aboriginal development expertise, and has worked tirelessly to promote economic development opportunities in the mining industry for Aboriginal communities.