Mining Projects and Aboriginal Communities – Respect and Consultation Must be Part of the Environmental Process – by David Hill

This commentary is from the digital version of the Canadian Mining Journal, Canada’s first mining publication.

David Hill is director and senior advisor of GMG Consulting Services. Reach him at He has over 18 years of experience as a manager, senior policy advisor, project manager, program developer, communications coordinator and issues management advisor to the provincial government, Aboriginal communities and organizations, and private sector clients across British Columbia. He is a highly skilled and experienced facilitator, trainer, supervisor, planner, public speaker and writer and has professional training in project management and public speaking.

In addition to his direct experience with Aboriginal communities, Hill has also worked as a senior advisor and manager for Aboriginal relations for the BC Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources, during which time he facilitated engagement between Aboriginal communities and the mining and petroleum development industries, and negotiated consultation, accommodation and benefit sharing agreements between Aboriginal communities and the provincial government.


Recently I heard Mike Kaplan, president and CEO of Aspen Skiing Co. in Colorado, say “Progressive companies aren’t thinking in terms of ‘or’, but of ‘and’: short-term financial performance and long-term growth, being environmentally and socially sound, and fiscally successful.”

Kaplan’s idea reminded me of the current controversy surrounding the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA)’s deliberation over the fate of the Prosperity mine, a multi-billion dollar project proposed by Taseko Mines. The most controversial aspect of the project is the destruction of Teztan Biny, more commonly known as Fish Lake, which includes a significant rainbow trout habitat, and which is considered sacred by the Tsilquot’in people. The BC environmental assessment (EA) office approved Taseko’s application, and the BC government hopes the CEAA will rubber stamp the project as well.

Perhaps not surprising, the Tsilquot’in Nation are among the loudest opponents of the project as it’s being proposed. The Tsilquot’in have expressed significant concerns over the long-term effects of the project on the environment, and the resulting infringement on their inherent rights, and feel they have been shut out of the review process so far.

Sadly, popular media – including Victoria Times-Colonist writer Paul Willcocks (“Mine Offers Jobs, Costs and a Tough Choice”, July 7) – perpetuates the stereotypical myth that there is an inherent “either/or” conflict between industrial development proponents and Aboriginal people. In regard to the Prosperity mine, he reinforces the “either/or” paradigm when he suggests that Taseko has two options to “get the best deal for the public”: save the lake (at a cost of more than $800 million) or address First Nations’ concerns through economic measures.”

This reminds me of a former colleague from the Ministry of Energy and Mines who felt that Aboriginal people opposed development projects as a form of “extortion”. In my nearly 20 years of working in the sustainable development field, and a decade working with First Nations, I can tell you that this portrayal of the options does not help foster positive change or progress.

The elusive truth that’s missing in the mainstream discussion is that many First Nations don’t oppose development, and in fact support sustainable economic growth. The more fundamental issue is that both provincial and federal EA review processes exclude Aboriginal social and cultural interests from being examined, and leave it to the companies to determine the impacts on First Nations, without their participation.

This approach does virtually nothing to ensure protection against negative social and cultural impacts, or the preservation and promotion of critical values, including language, family structure and spiritual practice. Just a few years ago I participated in a technical review of the EA’s terms of reference for a major mine near Dease Lake that listed “First Nations interests” as subsection g) under “Other Issues to be considered”.

Feddie Louie, former chair of the Tahltan Nation Social and Cultural Committee said it most eloquently during a mining forum in 2005, “We are at risk of extinction (as a people). All we want is the same respect and consideration as the goats and grizzly bears.”

Companies follow the rules set out by regulators, and most operating in Canada today are perfectly willing to work collaboratively with First Nations to mitigate negative impacts and to promote the long-term success and survival of Aboriginal people. Unfortunately, the regulators set up conflict by failing to encourage or require companies to work with impacted First Nations throughout the developmental process to identify and plan for potential socio-cultural impacts of major projects.

While it remains the “duty of the Crown” to ensure First Nations are consulted, governments do little to make sure that First Nations are part of the planning process, or that companies understand how to engage respectfully and effectively, before they start to dig.

Companies that want to improve their triple bottom line would be well served to take it upon themselves to initiate the engagement, and trust the impacted First Nations to work in the spirit of good faith, to build understanding, and find the common ground that will make for a successful and sustainable project.

While it may seem daunting, in my experience it takes less effort or risk than you might think. Forward-looking companies take a few simple steps to create the environment for success:

1) Engage early with all the First Nations who might be impacted by the development. Simply call the band office, and ask to meet with the community before you start to dig. One company I met with said they were advised by their lawyers to “keep their heads down” and “not raise any flags” with the First Nation, and proceeded to explore for two years before contacting the band. As we predicted, they had a very difficult time getting the band’s attention, because, as the chief told me, “We knew they were there, but they never asked to talk to us. So now they can wait.” Ouch – time is money!

2) Work with the First Nation to identify what’s important to them, and help them to protect and promote those values. While most people won’t turn down money, what we know is that there are many elements of our lives that are more important than money. A small investment into a First Nation’s “census” and discussions with community members will go a long way to finding out what is of real value to the community and allow you both to make decisions to support those values. Chances are, it will cost less than you think.

3) Work honestly to promote long-term success for the community. Work with the community to look beyond preserving the status quo, and encourage them to envision where they want to be in the long-term future, based on the values they’ve identified. Then establish a collaborative plan as part of your project that helps move them there. If your project impedes their progress forward, then it should be altered. This will make your project an agent of positive change, which is good for everyone.

Save time, save money, promote sustainable development, and improve the social and cultural values important to the people most impacted; early positive engagement can only help to improve your bottom-line.

Reader Comments

Most recent first

David Williams

Interesting commentary that could be useful in some situations. I have been closely involved with the Fish Lake issue for some years as an advocate for the Xeni Gwet’in Tsilhqot’in people and the Nemiah Valley. Unfortunately, the comment above from “bobby” reveals all too clearly the divide the wrong approach by a mining company can cause. Entrenched positions disrespectful to First Nations held by some by pro-project advocates have virtually ensured the failure of the Prosperity mine. It is my view that this particular mine should never be built because of all the impacts,and more,that were stated in the CEAA Panel’s final report. Nevertheless, the company and the provincial government were their own worst enemies throughout, so that even if the mine were to be a good project that did not cause irreparable harm, I suspect the First Nations would stop it. I wonder if David Hill would agree that there are some projects, no matter how profitable they might prove to be (and this one seems to be a net loss project as far as government revenues are concerned) that should not go ahead simply because the environmental, social and cultural costs are so much greater. I suspect he would.
Posted August 2, 2010 12:02 PM


The template for successful development of a mining project on First Nations territory was set years ago by Cominco at the Red Dog AK project. There, the Nana Corp was included in the project and given an equity postion which, over time,would increase to a fixed percentage of the project.They were also included in the supply chain. (First Nations have also been included in the supply chains in Nunavut mining projects.) At the time I thought this would set a precedent for future development in BC. Sadly, this has not occurred. Certainly part of the blame for the current problems rests with the media who promote their own self interest. Competing governments also add to the problem. Forgotten in all of this are the interests of the local residents both native & non-native it would appear.We need to to show respect for the rights of all participants and involve them at the beginning of a project.
Posted August 2, 2010 11:15 AM


Cmon already. Get your head out of the sand. They were consulted for 20 stinkin years, from early on right up to now. Taseko even gave them millions of dollars to travel and be able to participate for years in the consulting phase. They vowed to picket the property after its approved, so there is no pleasing the Tillys, theyve made that clear. All they want is to attempt illegal extortion, not progress and economic development. They want something for nothing, given to them. The consulting phase is over with after all these years. No more whining and crying with baseless claims of not being consulted anymore whatsoever. Blow a hole in the lake, and get on with it or die for lack of income. Hows that for an either or?
Posted August 1, 2010 06:36 PM


Very interesting perspective…I appreciate a more unbiased assessment of this complex issue.
Posted July 29, 2010 06:18 PM