Mining companies and aboriginal communities need strong relationships if both are to benefit
By Derrick Penner, Vancouver Sun
Between an increase in mining exploration work and development of a potential liquefied natural gas export industry, British Columbia’s First Nations are heavily engaged in consultations over resource projects in the province.
It puts the First Nations Energy and Mining Council, an aboriginal-created advisory body, in an important position at a critical time for aboriginal communities, both in terms of managing the impact of resource projects and realizing benefits.
“We need (the council),” said Ed John, Grand Chief of the B.C. First Nations Summit, “otherwise we don’t have the wherewithal.”
John said First Nations appoint experts to engage with governments, based on the direction of aboriginal leaders, on issues related to legislation and policy.
The council doesn’t negotiate with government, John said, but can offer advice to the First Nations contemplating development, or worried about development.
“We have very limited capacity, for sure,” John said, “but given the small capacity it’s been working relatively well, particularly on the LNG side.”
One issue John said government needs to address is the cumulative impact of the increasing number of resource projects being proposed for Northern B.C. At the same time, he said, the province needs to support First Nations in the creation of wider-scale land-use planning to “provide First Nations with the tools to make appropriate decisions” regarding specific projects.
John said many aboriginal people are working with the exploration companies in their territories and see potential opportunities to strike joint ventures or partnerships.
“Our people and our communities need training,” John said, “and our people need jobs, absolutely.”
Mining is the B.C.’s biggest private sector employer of aboriginal people, said Gavin Dirom, CEO of the Association for Mineral Exploration B.C.
He said the industry has put considerable resources into supporting initiatives such as the B.C. Aboriginal Mine Training Program, recognizing that while consultation and accommodation are Crown responsibilities, it is beneficial for both companies and First Nations communities to have strong relationships.
Dirom said the general message to companies is to “engage early and engage often” with First Nation communities that neighbour their exploration work, and do so at a high level — top executives meeting chiefs — to set the tone for a relationship.
AME B.C. chose its Mineral Exploration Roundup 2014 conference in Vancouver to unveil a new guidebook on aboriginal engagement.
However, there are disputes that remain unresolved and other leaders are more skeptical about the potential to achieve benefits from resource development while the over-arching issues of defining aboriginal rights and title to land, in the absence of treaties, remain unresolved.
Taseko Mines Inc.’s proposal for the $1.5 billion New Prosperity mine, 125 km southwest of Williams Lake in the Cariboo, is one project opposed by most B.C. First Nations.
Stewart Phillip, Grand Chief of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, characterized New Prosperity as “the poster child for how not to engage First Nations.”
Phillip said former premier Gordon Campbell was headed in the right direction in establishing consultation and shared decision-making under the banner of the “new relationship,” which included an overture toward recognizing aboriginal title in provincial legislation.
The legislation never happened, and from Phillip’s perspective, relationships between government and First Nations have deteriorated.
“That leaves the First Nations Energy and Mining Council empty-handed in terms of being able to offer up any concrete substance,” Phillip said.