Mining activity in Canada is on the rise due to higher metal prices and the metals shortage worldwide. According to Natural Resources Canada, “approximately 1,200 Aboriginal communities are located within 200 kilometres of producing mines and 2,100 exploration properties across Canada”.
Some of those communities have been participating in the industry through partnerships, joint ventures, and employment contracts in all aspects of mining ranging from early exploration projects to production mining. However, the majority of communities remain on the outside of development projects, some even resisting any aspect of development within their traditional lands.
With the rise in activity in the mining sector, there are two possible scenarios. In the first scenario, the company engages the community to develop a meaningful working relationship that provides benefits for both parties. The company benefits from a stable local workforce, access to the traditional lands of the community, and the political support necessary for a social licence to operate.
The community benefits from increased employment, partnerships, training, and knowledge that the company has some understanding of the traditional values and culture of their distinct society.
In the second scenario, the company makes every effort to rush the project through with little or no input from the community. This method, as history demonstrates, leads to conflict with the community, lack of investor confidence, and prolonged disruption to the project schedule, leading to increased costs.
Not taking the time to listen to the concerns of community members results in a lack of confidence in the project. Conflict might occur when community members believe their cultural identity and traditional way of life is threatened by the mining activity and that nobody, neither the government nor the company, is listening.
Today, more than at any other time in recent history, Aboriginal communities are looking to be heard and understood. Recent Supreme Court rulings have affirmed the need to engage Aboriginal communities early on in resource development projects. There are many conflicting ideas on how, who, and when to engage.
Given the large number of communities and the different and varied cultures, each resource development company must equip itself with an understanding of the community’s traditional territories in which they are working. While there is no single right way to engage communities, there are some universal steps that can overcome some common barriers.
First, companies need to engage communities in a proactive and respectful manner. To do this, the company needs to research the community. Who are the leaders? Are there interest groups within the community that need to be engaged? Are there culturally sensitive sites in the area where the project is located? Are there businesses that can provide services or supplies for the project?
Secondly, contact with the community should be made early on in the project and continue often. Politically, it is important that as soon as possible after initial contact the president of the company meet with Chief and Council. Building a meaningful relationship with a community is the foundation for a lasting partnership. Every community is unique and every approach to engage communities must be just as unique.
Communities and their leaders are under enormous pressure to be involved in the development of the natural resources on their traditional lands. On one hand, companies want the communities to participate in order to ensure that the project moves forward.
On the other hand, community leaders continue to seek ways to develop employment opportunities while ensuring that resource development has minimal impact on the lands where many members continue to practice traditional activities such as hunting and fishing.
It is by working together in an open, transparent manner, that the company and the community will be able to strike a balance. The company will have access to the resources they seek, and the communities will build capacity as partners in the development while protecting their culture, their traditions, and their land.