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Miners have started engaging the aboriginal communities on whose land they dig. But is it enough?
Leanne Bellegarde tries to connect communities. She’s a member of the Kawacatoose First Nation in Saskatchewan, a lawyer, and now, the director of aboriginal strategy for PotashCorp.
Native people are the youngest and fastest growing demographic in Saskatchewan. PotashCorp, a global potash producer in the province, projects it will need 800 new workers over the next two years, thanks to expansion and retirements.
But what should be an ideal match – people wanting jobs and a company needing workers – presents deep challenges. Many jobs at PotashCorp require Grade 12 or equivalency. Ms. Bellegarde says it’s difficult to find people who meet that bar in First Nations and Métis communities. And so the jobs often go to qualified outsiders, frustrating aboriginal people.
PotashCorp is one of many mining companies in Canada that realize engagement with native communities isn’t just a feel-good enterprise but an economic growth strategy. But while this engagement goes far deeper than in the past, some say it’s just the beginning of what’s truly needed.
“It would be really easy to say that we have hundreds of jobs, please apply, and walk away,” says Ms. Bellegarde. “It’s another to ask, ‘How many people do you have in your communities . . . and what do we need to work with you to ensure that they will be qualified applicants?’ That’s a different kind of conversation, and that’s the conversation we get into.”
PotashCorp has a pilot project with the Saskatchewan Indian Institute of Technology. It’s a mining pre-employment program for aboriginal participants with Grade 12 equivalency who might not be familiar with mining. “We invited people to do a two-week on-site work experience to get a feel for working on a potash mine,” says Ms. Bellegarde. “It takes any concern or fear of the unknown that might make them hesitate out of it.”
Another program, an internship, isn’t being offered this summer, however.
Ms. Bellegarde notes the challenges are many. “It’s easy to set targets but you’re not going to meet those targets unless you engage and help people in a meaningful way,” she says.
Defining what meaningful engagement means is a hot debate. For Roberta Jamieson, a Mohawk person from the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario, and president and CEO of Canada’s National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation (NAAF), meaningful engagement means more action, and serious investments, from more resource companies.
“It’s not good enough to say, ‘We’re open for business, come on over,’ when our people aren’t even getting out of high school, let alone going onto post-secondary education,” Ms. Jamieson says. “It’s an investment that has returns that are well worth it.”
On the mining side of the equation, corporate responsibility has become fundamental to the operations and philosophy of major mining firms, says Brian Dominique, a member of the Toronto law firm Cassels Brock’s mining practice group in Toronto. “It used to be, decades ago, that you went in, extracted and left.”
In the 2000s, mining companies began to realize aboriginal need to participate not only from a corporate, moral perspective but a business perspective. Still, that change in thinking hasn’t necessarily translated into concrete changes yet. “If you don’t have the skill sets, then people are going to be at an entry-level position,” Mr. Dominque says. “However, companies are making a real effort to break though that.”
A video on mining, targetting high-school students across Canada, features hip hop music and aboriginal people in a variety of professional roles in the mining sector. It was produced by NAAF in partnership with Vale Base Metals (Canada), a producer of nickel, cobalt and precious metals, based in Toronto.
Vale invested half a million dollars in the project, Ms. Satterthwaite says.
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