Regulating Aboriginal and Industry Relationships in Canada – by Juan Carlos Reyes

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

At this year’s Learning Together conference in Vancouver, one of the presenters spoke of the increasing need for junior exploration and mining companies to build and strengthen solid relationships with regional Aboriginal communities. He referenced a recent taking place in the Ring of Fire. Due to poorly managed relationship building, exploration was halted during a recent blockade by the First Nation communities of Webequie and Marten Falls, and the flow of funding to these projects was stifled.

He went on to say that Bay Street is finally starting to realize the importance for companies to nurture strong Aboriginal alliances and partnerships. Another of our presenters, Learning Together Director Jack Blacksmith, focused on community engagement and social corporate responsibility. In short, these topics have never been more relevant.

The inflamatory and strained relationship between industry and Aboriginal communities might prompt government intervention. Governments will attempt to implement what they would see as a measured approach for relationship building, but the impacts of this could be detrimental for both Aboriginal communities and industry. Bill C-300, for example, currently making the rounds in parliament, has a lot of merit on the surface. However, when you stop and think about the thousands of other cases in which the relationships between communities and industry have been phenomenal, this new regulation might create unnecessary complications. Otherwise amicable relationships could be strained by giving more power to the naysayer.
The summary section of Bill C-300 states, “The purpose of this enactment is to promote environmental best practices and to ensure the protection and promotion of international human rights standards in respect of the mining, oil or gas activities of Canadian corporations in developing countries. It also gives the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of International Trade the responsibility to issue guidelines that articulate corporate accountability standards for mining, oil or gas activities and it requires the Ministers to submit an annual report to both Houses of Parliament on the provisions and operation of this Act.”

Unless more is done to ensure that the prevalent and all-too-frequent incidents of shattered relations occur much less frequently, everyone will be forced to live with a government-implemented relationship strategy that will limit the freedom to negotiate in good faith. And many of our companies and Aboriginal communities do not require this intervention. There are indeed many partners with limited resources that have nonetheless developed very ingenious and respectful ways to engage and become meaningful partners, despite this lack of funding.

For example, there was a small exploration company doing work with Wahgoshig First Nation, who found creative ways to engage and incorporate opportunities through their drilling program. They engaged their driller as a trainer and brought in young summer students as helpers to help with the work. With a tight budget, this company was able to develop a solid relationship with the community that continues today. My fear is that once a government strategy is implemented, some communities might have very high expectations for what constitutes consultation, and accomodation examples like Wahgoshig will no longer take place.

We need to increase the support for organizations like Canadian Aboriginal Minerals Association (CAMA) and Learning Together, organizations that are working hard to ensure that our Aboriginal communities receive plenty of information and assistance, which includes learning from past mistakes and about the creative methods other communities are utilizing to great success. After all, these organizations are the ideal go-betweens for industry and Aboriginal communities.