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By Sarah Hurst
For Mining News 

Miners serious about indigenous rights

Past legacy created climate of mistrust but new approaches are proving fruitful for companies and aboriginals across the nation


Last updated 2/25/2007 at Noon

Miners in the far north can no longer trample on the rights of indigenous residents as some did in the past. Any company operating on or near aboriginal land must work closely with local communities, whether ownership issues have been decided, as in Alaska, or are still to be resolved, as in much of Canada. Political leaders and miners discussed the question of how to win community support for projects at the Mineral Exploration Roundup in Vancouver Jan. 29.

"How do we address the historical gaps that have separated aboriginal peoples from the rest of society for so many years, the numbers that we've become all too familiar with around education, health, ultimately mortality?" asked Mike de Jong, British Columbia's minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation. "How are we going to embark on a new societal approach to ensuring that all British Columbians, all Canadians, are sharing in the abundance of wealth that this country enjoys?"

Policy toward aboriginals in British Columbia today is termed the New Relationship. Last year the provincial government allocated C$100 million to a New Relationship Trust that First Nations can use for land and resource management and social programs. "To get different results does involve doing things differently," de Jong said. "Reconciliation is an easy word to say, but saying it doesn't make it a fact. It becomes a fact over time."

More outstanding issues for First Nations

"This New Relationship has been transforming the nature of how we work together. It has been built; it didn't happen overnight, but it has been built on the relationship between individuals," said Grand Chief Ed John, a lawyer from British Columbia. "Even though we are working together in this atmosphere of constructive relationship-building, there are still a lot more outstanding issues that we have to grapple with." Land use plans are needed for every square inch of the province so that First Nations know which lands are open to development and which are not, John added.

"First Nations are also legitimate players with legal interests in their traditional territories that exist now," John said. "They're not asserted rights, they're not asserted titles, they exist and they are real, and in a respectful environment industry needs to recognize and operate on that basis. ... From our side, from the First Nations side, we have every reason to be suspicious of industry; we have every reason to be suspicious of government. ... We don't want to be brought in at the last minute or as an afterthought." In cases heard by Canada's Supreme Court, government and industry invariably oppose First Nations, John said.

Nunavut governed by Inuit

In contrast to British Columbia, the recently established territory of Nunavut is governed by the Inuit, who comprise about 85 percent of its population. Nunavut is already home to numerous mining projects and is always open for business, according to Premier Paul Okalik. "When it comes to Nunavut, all you have to do is listen to our invitation and take us up on it," he said. "As Inuit we have a history of adaptation when it comes to the introduction of new technologies in our communities and our territory."

Economic development is a priority for Nunavut, Okalik said. There is no capital tax in Nunavut, which is a significant incentive for the mining sector, he pointed out. Corporate taxes in Nunavut are among the lowest in the country and the territory also has Canada's lowest personal income tax rate, according to Okalik. In addition, Nunavut will rebate fuel taxes for off-road projects.

"The stakes are high and the potential is as vast as our territory," Okalik said. "Mining jobs are much more than shovels in the ground. There is the exploration and construction, camp management, administrative support, and eventually the decommissioning, reclamation and ongoing environmental monitoring." Rotational shifts at mining camps enable the Inuit to get out on their land and participate in traditional activities during their off-weeks, Okalik added. "For mine operators willing to invest in the local population, they will find a long-term workforce committed for the duration of the project," he said.

The opportunities created for young people are among the most positive benefits of mining, Okalik said. Mining projects give teenagers an incentive to finish high school and get the qualifications they need. "There is also the intangible benefit of what this does for the self-esteem of these workers, who know they're building a prosperous future for their community," the premier added.

Canadian Aboriginal Minerals Association founded in 1992

Hans Matthews, a geologist and First Nations member who works for the Canadian Aboriginal Minerals Association, told Roundup that his organization was formed in 1992 by a group of people who wanted to see a change in the way that mining companies and aboriginal communities interacted. "Governments were settling very few land claims, mining companies were not getting projects approved, and the climate was that of confrontation and we thought that something had to be done," he said. "In the early days it was like pulling teeth to negotiate, however today ... it is the norm, but the implementation of agreements is a real challenge today," Matthews added.

Aboriginal communities often wonder why there is a sudden rush to develop a mineral deposit that has been there for a long time. "Given this lack of economic understanding, along with metal price cycles ups and downs, the urgency of a company to develop is wholly foreign to many communities," Matthews said. Some people remember previous development rushes when mining companies came in and left, never to be seen again. Aboriginals felt that they got a raw deal and this has created a climate of mistrust, according to Matthews.

"The mining industry is experiencing a period never seen before, with its very high nickel prices, for example, over $16, copper reaching over $3.50 and so on. ... But while the party goes on in one room, the truth is that aboriginal community prosperity may not be keeping pace," Matthews said. "Some communities are participating with companies, agreements are in place; some are only learning how to seek opportunities from the industry on their traditional lands; while many only have this desire to get involved. The reality is that many communities are struggling to respond to the fast and furious pace of the industry."


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