Mining Companies and First Nations: Many Success Stories in Northern Ontario – by Norm Tollinsky

Norm Tollinsky is editor of Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal, a magazine that showcases the mining expertise of North Bay, Timmins and Sudbury. Go to the December 2009, issue to read about the many successful partnerships between Northern Ontario’s Aboriginal communities and the mining industry.

This issue’s Special Report on First Nation Engagement in the Mining Industry sheds light on an aspect of the industry that some may have thought incidental. In November 2006, a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed a requirement by government to consult with and accommodate First Nation communities with respect to mining, forestry and other economic activities on their traditional lands. This decision changed the way mining companies do business and caused the Ontario government to amend the Mining Act to reflect the new reality.

The mining industry in Ontario dates back 125 years. That makes it either ancient or the new kid on the block depending on your perspective. For First Nation people, who have called Ontario home for more than 7,000 years, it’s mostly the latter. Mining and exploration companies staked claims and mined Ontario’s riches in most cases without consulting or accommodating the communities on whose traditional territories the activity took place. The First Nations, as one chief put it, were confined to the bleachers.

Today, it’s a different story. Mining companies are hiring vice-presidents of Aboriginal affairs, suppliers are establishing joint venture enterprises with First Nation communities and a whole industry of legal and consulting services is springing up. First Nation communities, meanwhile, are taking advantage of training, employment and business opportunities. They’re learning new skills, collecting pay cheques and starting new businesses. Some of them are staking their own claims and knocking on the doors of exploration companies in Toronto to lure them to their traditional territories.

There may be a legal requirement to consult and accommodate, but mining companies are quick to acknowledge that maintaining amicable and mutually beneficial relations with their neighbours is good business and the right thing to do. The odd mining company may have balked, but generally speaking, none of them are being dragged kicking and screaming to the bargaining table. Goodwill prevails on both sides.

It is high time that the original inhabitants of this land share in Canada’s bounty. By reaching out to the First Nation communities, mining companies are playing a socially responsible role, contributing to the economic well being of a people who have been left on the sidelines and marginalized. Mining, after all, can’t just be about making profits.

Handouts from a paternalistic government have failed to bring prosperity to the First Nations. Poverty, substandard housing, unemployment, drug and alcohol dependency, poor health and educational underachievement are more often than not the norm in Aboriginal communities, especially remote fly-in communities. These third world conditions are a disgrace to Canada. The mining industry can’t, of course, right every wrong or guarantee instant wealth. It’s only a small part of the solution, but it can nevertheless, make a big difference, especially in communities that are fortunate enough to benefit from an operating mine.

Last year, the media jumped all over a story about a standoff between Platinex Inc. and the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation that resulted in the jailing of Chief Donnie Morris and several other members of the community over their refusal to allow the company access to its claims. The mainstream media, of course, is drawn to conflict. It can’t be bothered reporting about all of the positive relationships between mining companies and First Nations, so the resulting imbalance created the impression that the First Nations want nothing to do with the mining industry.

We hope that our Special Report in the this issue will provide that missing balance and, at the same time, provide mining companies and First Nation communities with a better understanding of how to go about developing a mutually beneficial relationship.