Aboriginal Communities and the Mining Industry: Moving Forward in 2009 – by Juan Carlos Reyes

Juan Carlos Reyes is the organizer of the annual Learning Together conference and an aboriginal consultant with Efficiency.ca. He is passionate about human rights and works tirelessly to help improve the lives of Canadian aboriginal people.

What a difference a few months can make! If I had written this article six months ago and attempted to predict the outlook of the mineral resource industry, it probably would have been a much different picture. As we all know, the financials of the minerals industry are on a real roller-coaster ride, and currently it seems to be still coasting downward. This decline tends to make a big difference in the amount and quality of capital available to the start or continuation of new initiatives. This has particular significance for aboriginal groups as this is where we would typically see new negotiations taking place.

On the other hand, not much has changed for aboriginal communities across Canada — poverty levels are still running high, government negligence is still a major concern and education about the industry throughout most communities is nearly nonexistent. Add to this the amount of new information now available regarding the need to consult and accommodate, and the impact of the recent jail terms served by the Chief and council from KI First Nation, and you have a recipe for tough negotiations ahead.

In the past few years, the industry  and its representative bodies and government have been doing a great deal to try to improve the flow of communication between aboriginal communities and other groups and organizations. Although well intended, the results have not been as productive as they would have wished.

The reason for this is simple: aboriginal communities look at the industry as the wolf, and we all know the wolf is never trusted by the sheep, regardless of his cloak of good intentions. Nearly every aboriginal community has a negative view of both government and industry and, in most cases, very justifiably so. In order to truly be effective in achieving an increased awareness of the industry and the positive things that it can bring to aboriginal communities, it is important that this message and the  work it entails be done within the aboriginal world itself.

So how do we move forward? Enhancing and increasing knowledge is the daunting task that the Learning Together initiative has undertaken. We are here to grow and share knowledge with the minerals industry about aboriginal heritage, history, rights and treaties, and, most importantly, to bring aboriginal communities from across Canada together in discussions led by peers — those who have “been there and done that.” We have just such an opportunity at our annual conferences. Not all the stories we share have happy endings, but every case study and workshop that we hold has a very important lesson to share.

Our mandate is to “engage aboriginal communities and advocate on behalf of the Aboriginal Peoples while respecting values, building trust and educating as an independent aboriginal organization.” Everyone involved in the world of Canadian mining and exploration needs to understand that working with aboriginal communities, either in current or future developments, is almost inevitable. Understanding aboriginal values, culture and heritage will be a tremendous asset in carrying out effective negotiations.

Our next Learning Together conference is going to be held in Montreal on April 8–9, 2009, and once again we are expecting to have significant aboriginal participation: typically over 70 per cent. As always, this conference is a perfect opportunity for everyone in the industry to learn more about aboriginal communities and their decision-making processes regarding the industry.