Respect for indigenous cultures: How Barrick is forging strong relationships with indigenous peoples in North America – (August 19, 2011)

This article came from Barrick Gold internal magazine Beyond Borders: Responsible Mining at Barrick Gold Corporation

Indigenous peoples often have historical and cultural ties to land endowed with important natural resources. To unlock the value of these resources for the benefit of everyone involved, responsible mining companies must understand and address a range of unique challenges and opportunities.

Barrick works constructively with indigenous peoples around the world. In North America, although Native peoples may have different cultural traditions, the challenges they face and their partnerships with Barrick often have striking similarities.


The Donlin Gold project in Alaska is a large, undeveloped gold deposit, approximately 450 kilometers northwest of Anchorage. Barrick has a 50 per cent interest in the project; NovaGold owns the remaining 50 per cent stake.

There are nearly 70 distinct communities near the Donlin project site and along the route of a proposed natural gas pipeline that would supply power to the mine. These communities need to be addressed as individual cultural and indigenous entities. Not all speak the same languages. In some communities, the Yup’ik language is primarily spoken and English is secondary. There is also a strong Russian influence in this region. Insufficient education, job skills, and employment opportunities can hinder the ability of job seekers from these communities to find work. Finding and maintaining common ground is essential.

“When two cultures come together, sometimes one doesn’t see the other as it truly is,” says Mary Sattler, manager, Community Development & Sustainability at Donlin Gold. “A wonderful thing here at Donlin is that you aren’t perceived as ‘up river’ or ‘down river’, Russian Orthodox or Moravian, Yup’ik or Athabascan. You’re a part of the Donlin team and you work together. It’s very different to anywhere else I’ve ever worked. Part of what’s so amazing here is that even though they see themselves as very different from their closest neighbors, at Donlin they also see themselves as part of the same team.”

Sattler was a Democratic member of the Alaska House of Representatives for 10 years, from 1999 to 2009 representing communities centered around Bethel, Alaska, where Donlin Gold is located. She is also Yup’ik, and her background has given her a unique perspective on the people she now works with as part of the mine project.

“The last 16 years have been a big learning experience for all of us,” she explains. “Essentially, working with the mine project is a way for families to hunt and gather more, and that traditional way of life is very important here. We believe generosity is the best value, not accumulation of goods. Steady work allows people to share with their families and communities. And our sense of community is very strong.”

Extending that sense of community to the Donlin camp took years, with trial and error leading to a new appreciation for the ways Barrick and its host communities viewed and could work with each other. Over time, there were small changes that paid big dividends. Family is critical, so photos of kin are omnipresent in employee homes. The Donlin camp now displays photos of employees and tour participants, and in turn they see it as an extension of their own homes.

Initially, however, that wasn’t the case. Managers were left puzzled and disgruntled when their employees did not make eye contact or did not ask questions about process or issues. However, in Yup’ik and Athabaskan culture, looking down is a sign of respect. Confrontation is to be avoided. Children learn from their elders to do things by modeling behaviors, and not by asking questions, which can be seen as disrespectful to elders’ authority. These types of misunderstandings contributed to a turnover rate of up to 318 per cent in the mid-1990’s.

Worker rotations were adjusted from 20 days on/10 days off to a two week on/two week off rotation, 12 hours per day. To build trust, two local Alaska Natives were hired to be the program coordinators. Cultural sensitivity training was conducted for both Alaska Native and non-Native employees.

“In this culture, years and years of poverty have taken a toll on pride and the youth here are badly affected,” comments Bill Bieber, Donlin Gold Operations manager. “There is no magic solution. Unfortunately, some people have a stereotype of what Native people are like. In over 16 years here, I’ve been fortunate to be invited into people’s communities and homes and really understand how family and teamwork are strengths in this culture. And they are strengths we can learn and benefit from.”

Dealing with substance abuse can be a critical issue in Native communities. As part of the action plan, a counselor is on-site to help employees deal with family stress, substance abuse issues and teaching skills like forward planning.

“Native culture is very much in the moment. People don’t tend to plan ahead because they are focused on what they are going to accomplish that day. So when they would arrive for a two week rotation, they might not have planned for food or supplies at home. We are working with employees to help them manage a structured work environment and juggle home responsibilities in ways that may be new for them,” Bieber notes.

He adds, “One of the big elements of our success in gaining and maintaining trust comes from working with Native peoples to enhance their culture, and also by applying their culture to the way we do business.”


That principle is also in evidence at Barrick’s Hemlo project, an underground and open-pit mine, located approximately 350 kilometers east of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Some of the same issues faced at the Donlin Gold project are also at play here, including educational and substance abuse challenges.

Barrick is working with local First Nation bands in the area surrounding Hemlo to build and maintain a positive relationship. A big part of that is helping to preserve elements of Native culture, such as elders’ observations on historical land use and mapping. “That prevents this important information from being lost,” says Roger Souckey, Hemlo’s Employee Relations superintendant.

Focusing on education and skills development is critical. A report released in early 2011 by the Canadian Mining Industry Human Resources Council (MIHRC) estimates that the Canadian mining industry alone will need to hire about 100,000 workers by 2020, both in new staff and replacement hires. Barrick was recently part of an innovative skills training pilot. Called Mining Essentials, it was offered in partnership with Anishinabek Employment and Training Services, the Assembly of First Nations, the MIHRC, the Ojibways of the Pic River First Nation, Pic Mobert First Nation, and Confederation College. The 12- week course, which began in November 2010, offered a comprehensive overview of the essential non-technical skills needed for mining, prepping graduates for an entry-level mining position.

At the time the program was launched, National Chief Shawn Atleo commented, “First Nations support environmentally responsible mining operations that will employ their Peoples – directly or indirectly – as a means of creating healthy, economically sustainable communities. We need First Nations specific training such as this to ensure that all Peoples, including Inuit and Métis, receive the necessary skills to enter the workforce.” Barrick offered four weeks of onsite training, rotating students through each operational area. At the end of the program, graduates received a certification. Some of the program participants have already found jobs in the mining industry.

“This is further progress on an agreement we have in place to provide skills training and employment for First Nations people,” Souckey notes. It also links into a First Nations skills database that Barrick supports. The database identifies potential business opportunities for First Nation peoples with Barrick, as well as gathering information on the current skill set and interests.

“This way, if we see a job or business opportunity, we know where to focus training, or direct an application,” Souckey says. “It also helps us identify barriers, like lack of a driver’s license, or gaps in education.”

There’s a further aspect to cultural sensitivity, and that’s ensuring that contractors who work for Barrick are also mindful and respectful of local customs and culture.


Barrick has a long record of constructive engagement with the Western Shoshone people of rural Nevada. Since 2005, quarterly meetings with tribal leaders and community representatives have included senior company managers, including the president of Barrick’s North America Region, who has attended every meeting since 2006. All Western Shoshone are welcome at these meetings. The tribal communities take turns hosting the meetings and develop each agenda in collaboration with Barrick representatives.

As a result of this constructive engagement, a Collaborative Agreement between Barrick and four Western Shoshone tribes was signed in 2008. The agreement has led to increased recruitment and employment opportunities for Western Shoshone-owned businesses. The agreement also established the Western Shoshone Educational Legacy Fund, which is now valued at more than $1 million and has provided more than 300 college and vocational scholarships for Shoshone students of all ages. More than 100 scholarships were awarded in 2010. The Legacy Fund has paid out $489,000 to date and will continue to grow to serve future generations.

“The number one challenge is communication,” comments Louis Schack, director, Communications and Community Affairs for Barrick North America. “We’re dealing with a small population of about 7,000 located in very remote areas, where there isn’t a lot of infrastructure. Many have limited financial resources and have to travel long distances from their homes to the mines.” Cultural differences also need to be taken into consideration, he notes.

Barrick has contributed to local social services, including $190,000 toward the total estimated cost of $270,000 needed to construct the Ely Shoshone Elders’ Center, which opened last summer, and also to broader initiatives such as the preservation of the Shoshone language.

A Western Shoshone consultant was hired in 2009 to recruit potential employees in remote Shoshone communities, providing coaching on filling out job applications, interview training and clearly outlining the expectations of employment at Barrick. Through this program, all self-identified Native Americans are guaranteed an interview for employment with Barrick.

In 2010, Barrick established a Western Shoshone Cultural Advisory Group (WSCAG) to provide input on early stage mining projects and operations. The Advisory Group is comprised of elders and members of several Western Shoshone tribes and meets monthly. This group provides an additional forum for shared understanding between Barrick and the Western Shoshone.

British Columbia

Support for indigenous people often continues after a mine has closed. For example, nearly 38 per cent of closure employees and long-term contractors at the former Eskay Creek mine in northern British Columbia, Canada, are First Nations. While the mine was in operation, 34 per cent of employees were First Nations. Barrick has also continued its support for local Indigenous people near the mine with a $500,000 donation to the Iskut Community Centre in 2011.

What all projects with indigenous peoples have in common is a commitment to listening – and to learning. Back at Donlin Gold, Sattler explains, “We visited a lot of villages over the past three years and asked the tribe to co-host the meetings. We are not asking for their support at this time. We are just listening to their questions and providing the best answers we can. Our commitment is to encourage constructive engagement and keep the channels of communication open, and this will continue as we move into permitting, construction and operation.”

She adds, “Modern mining is different from what they know. It involves permits, a proscribed way of doing things, a mitigation plan and reclamation plans. After listening to us, people feel more comfortable about what we are trying to do. And they also know that all the information in our permits is available publicly and that they have access to the regulatory agencies we work with. So there is greater trust that it’s a transparent process and that they have input. And that their concerns will be heard and their questions answered.”

She points out another important reason that Native communities want to work with local mining companies. “It’s a cash/subsistence blend here. You need cash for things like gas, nets, guns, ammunition, and other tools needed to harvest wild land. A wage economy is needed to subsidize subsistence living.” She also delineates the critical difference between an improved standard of living and a better quality of life. “State and federal governments help bring infrastructure to a community, but there is only so much satisfaction if the overall quality of life is lacking. People here have an amazing work ethic and understand they can’t improve their quality of life without continued sobriety and economic security. They understand and appreciate the need for a private sector economic engine.”

Building a true sense of community is a long-term effort. “We realize we have as much to learn from our native hosts and neighbors as they do from us,” says Bieber. “That mutual respect is what makes this so rewarding.”