Prince George Citizen staff
Northern B.C. is both a battleground and a field of dreams for the mining sector when it comes to aboriginal relations. Some of the best and worst relationships between mining companies and First Nations can be found in this region.
The new Aboriginal Engagement Guidebook, written by the Association for Mineral Exploration B.C., explores the learning moments in both the best and the worst of those relationships. The 77-page guide is an expansion on previous toolkits. It was unveiled this past week at the association's massive Roundup annual conference in Vancouver.
The guide contains a comprehensive history of aboriginal relations pertaining to mining, a set of frequently encountered scenarios, a chart of common problems, and suggestions and potential solutions.
"It is not what I'd call codified, because there are so many variables [from First Nation to First Nation and mine project to mine project], but it is a handbook that really gives companies information on how they should be doing their dealings," provincial mining minister Bill Bennett said.
The issue was not a primary concern for many years, as mining in B.C. lulled almost to a halt during the 1990s and has only rebounded in the past decade. That rebound was dealt a shock in 2007 when, for the first time, the federal/provincial environmental joint review panel said no to a proposed mine. It was the Kemess North project, and centred on using Amazay (Duncan) Lake as a tailings pond. Insiders wondered if the rejection of Northgate Minerals' plan was because the science was sound or if it was in deference to the First Nations who stood up to oppose the project.
"It seems as if the unresolved social and cultural considerations of the region far outweighed the tangible economic and environmental factors being considered," said Michael McPhie, the then-president of the Mining Association of B.C. at the time. "This decision could potentially mean the loss of hundreds of high paying jobs and the flight of investment from an area desperately in need of economic activity."
Not only did this dire outcome not come to pass, the reverse happened. The project was purchased for $1.5 billion by AuRico Gold Inc. and is now alive again as a proposed underground mine, bypassing all the environmental concerns raised by area First Nations.
Furthermore, straight south of the Kemess site, in the same Williston Lake valley, the Mount Milligan Mine went from exploration project to fully operational mine in the time since the Amazay decision. Thompson Creek Metals partnered with the affected First Nations to smoothly bring the Mount Milligan Mine to life. Aboriginal companies helped build it, and native people are employed there.
"We are not against development in our territories," said Gordon Pierre, grand chief of the Tse Keh Nay that led the fight against the Amazay Lake design. "This is not just about protecting this lake for First Nations people; this is about protecting all lakes for all Canadians. There are currently over 20 lakes in Canada facing similar mining proposals and we are happy that a precedent has been set in Tse Keh Nay territory: killing lakes is unacceptable."
Taseko Mines is facing the same opposition in a different local site of interest. Their hopes for a gold mine west of Williams Lake have been called into doubt by two review panels.
During and after the review process, Taseko officials insisted too much was devoted to First Nations political license over science and economic values. On the other hand, Taseko has partnership agreements with some Cariboo First Nations and their operational Gibraltar Mine is a significant employer of aboriginal residents in the area.
The provincial government is on the record as supportive of the New Prosperity proposal, even though the same B.C. government quashed the Booker Pacific mining company's proposal for a mine at Morrison Lake near Granisle, north of Burns Lake before it even reached the level of panel hearings. Rumoured to be a rejection based more on the company's perceived treatment of the resident aboriginal nations, the Gitxsan, Gitanyow and Lake Babine bands, instead of environmental concerns, the company fought the blockage in court and recently won, bringing the application back to life.
The Blackwater gold/copper proposed mine is also still in the early stages of development, but ownership company New Gold is deep into partnership agreements with multiple First Nations located in the affected territory south of Vanderhoof and west of Prince George. All signs so far are of aboriginal support similar to the successful Mount Milligan program.
Signs of strong First Nations opposition, however, are visible at another northern B.C. industrial site. Fortune Minerals has done advanced exploratory work in the Klappan region of the northwest - Tahltan territory - but in late 2013 was ordered by the provincial government to halt their efforts when a sizable protest camp was set up adjacent to the mining company's exploration camp.
The RCMP placed officers in between the two sides until Bennett issued the order to cease mining operations pending further talks with the Tahltan.
Similar discussions resulted in another industrial player - petroleum company Shell - being ousted in 2012 from any further activities in the same region. That required provincial government facilitation to prevent an outright financial loss by the company and the repudiation of provincial authority by the Tahltan which, like most of the First Nations in northern B.C., does not have a treaty. No treaty is seen in some circles as meaning limited or no federal/provincial jurisdiction over land use of any kind on traditional aboriginal territories.
"The Tahltan Nation is united in its opposition to development in our Sacred Headwaters," said Tahltan Central Council president Annita McPhee. "This [one-year pause] gives us some temporary reprieve, and is the first step in a long journey towards a protection plan for the Klappan. We will continue to resist any industrial development ... that threatens to destroy our land and culture."
Another on that same list is the Red Chris copper/gold mine proposal that is far down the procedural road but has a flat refusal by the Tahltan people.
Which is not to say they reject all industrial activity. On the contrary, McPhee was brought to the University of Toronto for a lecture last year on how her nation has successfully interceded on huge projects they oppose but also backed huge projects they approve of. She said that in the past three years the Tahltan people have "started construction on $2 billion in resource projects, and $11 billion more are being considered" resulting in almost 100 per cent employment for her people plus an income stream for healthcare, language and cultural programs.
The stakes are clearly as high as fiscal projects get - hundreds of millions of investment dollars, years of employment for entire communities, but the possibility of massive environmental costs, both in dollars and damage, if things go wrong.
McPhee was in Prince George at the Premier's Natural Resources Forum in January to speak and hear more on this theme, as was premier Christy Clark. During Clark's keynote address, spontaneous applause erupted in the mostly pro-development audience when she said aboriginal inclusion in the industrial development process was not good enough, and all sides stood to gain by engaging together better.
"They have waited far too long," for meaningful consultation, she said of B.C.'s First Nations.
Mining is not the only industry in this predicament. Forestry companies have also been challenged after unfettered harvesting without aboriginal compensation or consideration. First Nations have gone to court for changes in favour of aboriginal sharing.
"The key is sound relationships," said Jason Fisher, a vice-president at Dunkley Lumber during a forum panel discussion at the premier's forum. "Developing relationships can be done in a cliched way or a nuanced way - getting to know the needs not as 'First Nations needs' but as the needs of individual people in your region who feel the impacts of what you do as a company. It behooves us [in industry] to get out and meet those people on whose traditional territory we are working."
Minister Bennett said that was exactly the template for a company wishing to avoid costly or plan-killing delays, public protests, court battles, government interventions and marketplace reputation damage: do the relationship work before doing the dirt work.
"Government has its own obligations to consult with First Nations. We are certainly willing and happy to engage with industry on that. But industry has taken a lead on this themselves," he said.