Two weeks ago during Toronto’s annual mining convention, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) – Canada’s national organization for Aboriginal people – and the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) – an industry lobby group – was signed.
In a prepared speech for the MOU, National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine said, “Two months ago, I had the opportunity to travel to the Attawapiskat First Nation to visit the community and the new Victor Diamond Mine…I was very impressed with De Beers’ commitment to working closely with Attawapiskat. This kind of economic development is bringing hope to so many people who are desperate to provide for their families.”
Patricia Dillon, the previous President of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, stated, “The deliberations and discussions leading up to the signing of this MOU have been undertaken with much goodwill on both sides. This historic document formalizes a relationship that has been flourishing for some time and lays a framework for the mineral industry to work cooperatively with First Nations and aboriginal communities.”
This agreement sends a tremendously strong message to governments and the environmental movement that Canada’s top Aboriginal leadership supports and wants to expand sustainable mining developments when proper consultation and economic agreements are implemented.
The MOU also dovetails with the Ontario government’s commitment “to improve the quality of life and expand economic opportunities for all Aboriginal peoples in our province, both on- and off-reserve,” as stated in last November’s Speech from the Throne.
In 2004, the PDAC formed an Aboriginal Affairs Committee with a mission to promote greater participation by First Nations in the mining sector as well as better understanding and cooperation between Aboriginal communities and mineral exploration and mining companies.
Over the years, PDAC has promoted dialogue between the Aboriginal and mining communities, including well attended workshops at the annual convention and developed information resources. In addition, the association has publicly advocated for the faster resolution of land claims and the implementation of resource revenue sharing with First Nation communities.
In 2007, Fontaine announced a Corporate Challenge initiative that would engage Canadian companies to increase business activities with First Nations and encourage partnerships between corporations and communities.
“I can assure you that First Nations people are not anti-development,” said Fontaine at a lunch event last October. “We have a huge vested interest in protecting the environment. It is our people who occupy the Boreal Forest.”
Yet an increasingly powerful environmental movement that is located in vote-rich southern Ontario is committed to stopping mining development in the province’s vast Boreal Forest. “Mining is right now the biggest threat to the northern Boreal Forest,” a campaigner for ForestEthics recently stated.
The opposition to mining development by the environmental movement brings back memories of their success at destroying the Canadian fur trade a few decades ago and the resulting increase in poverty and other social ills on issolated reserves.
In many isolated, northern First Nation communities, the only viable activity is the mining sector. NRCan research indicates that there are approximately 1,200 aboriginal communities located within 200 kilometres of some 2,100 exploration properties across the country. Canada’s mining sector is the largest employer of Aboriginals and significantly reduces First Nations poverty levels wherever development occurs.
Rio Tinto, the world’s third largest miner, has a solid dedication to increase Aboriginal participation in the industry. In Australia, the company has stated that, “growing the pool of work ready indigenous employees for the mining industry is a project of national importance.”
At the company’s Diavik mine in the Northwest Territories – jointly owned with Harry Winston Diamond Mines Ltd. – about a third of the northern workforce are indigenous people. Diavik conducts an Aboriginal Leadership Development Program that provides individuals with additional skills to help advance their careers.
In Northern Ontario, employment during the construction of De Beers Victor Mine created over 905 jobs and almost 30 per cent were filled by Aboriginal people. Business contracts with entities that had an Aboriginal partnership totaled $164 million to date, approximately 23 per cent of the total construction cost.
At the Diavik diamond mine slightly over one billion dollars had been spent with Aboriginal businesses by early 2006. At Cameco Corportation’s uranium mines in northern Saskatchewan almost half the mine site employees are of Aboriginal background. Similar success stories are occurring at Vale Inco’s Voisey’s Bay nickel mine in Labrador and at the Raglan nickel deposits in northern Quebec which are owned by Xstrata Nickel
In the next decade, mineral resource development may become one of the chief drivers of economic growth in Canada, particularly throughout northern and rural regions and significantly reduce First Nation poverty levels.
“In signing this Memorandum of Understanding today, we will be moving forward, together, towards a brighter and better future for ourselves and our children,” said Fontaine during the PDAC convention on March 4th, 2007.
Stan Sudol is a Toronto-based executive speech writer and mining columnist.