Aboriginal studies featured for mining institute – by Ian Ross (Northern Ontario Business – October 2012)

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. Ian Ross is the editor of Northern Ontario Business ianross@nob.on.ca.

A proposed mining institute at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University will place a strong emphasis on acting as an “honest broker” in dialogue between industry and First Nations.

If there’s one focus of study that will be addressed as a Centre of Excellence in Mineral Exploration and Sustainable Mining Development takes shape it’s the need to bridge the cultural gap often widened by the lack of communication and consultation.

Geology professor Peter Hollings, who’ll head up the institute, said the goal of the centre is to be a one-stop repository of experts and research for both companies and Aboriginal bands. “We want the natural answer to be Lakehead.”

For years, both industry and First Nations have chafed at the lack of definitive government rules on consultation in Ontario. Hollings knows the frustration that exists on both sides.

“We hear it a lot from industry and the First Nation communities who don’t fully understand the difference between a junior company coming in to do prospecting and drill a hole, as opposed to Cliffs Natural Resources coming to develop the Ring of Fire.

“There has to be a two-way dialogue, and right now there’s a lot of suspicion on both sides about motivations. We hope we can bridge that gap and be that niche where we are the honest broker.”

A special emphasis will be placed on graduating geologists who are well-rounded in Aboriginal studies.

Hollings said a recent conversation with a Lakehead alum made him realize that the first contact most First Nation people have with mining companies are not the CEOs, but the junior geologists on the ground.

“Their first interaction is going to be with the guy running the drill program or tasked with the line-cutting, and we need to make those geologists aware.”.

Like the exploration scene in the northwest, Lakehead’s geology department is booming with 150 undergrads, a far cry from when Hollings started 12 years ago when enrolment was barely in the double digits.

Lakehead prides itself on producing grads that are industry-ready, “but we realized we were missing something, and that was the bridging element with the First Nations,” said Hollings.

The university often works with junior miners in setting up graduate and honours field projects, and is talking with the majors about research opportunities.

“In this role, I’m spending a lot more time trying to understand how First Nations see these things.”

Among the next steps are to arrange meetings with Lakehead’s Aboriginal governance council to get their input.

“We realized early on that if we don’t involve First Nations communities in the growth of this centre from the beginning, then they’ll never buy in,” said Hollings. “We want them to have a say, same as the mining companies.”

Reaching out to First Nations young people to enroll will be key.

“A First Nation kid that goes through geology is going to write his own ticket.”

Hollings said Lakehead has no intentions of duplicating what Sudbury’s Laurentian University offers in mineral excavation expertise.

The institutional model that’s emerged so far involves three streams of overlapping research in mineral exploration, the environmental side (both assessment and remediation) and First Nations studies.

Hollings said Lakehead is well-positioned to make this happen with a number of faculty in geography, natural resources management, chemistry, biology, anthropology, education and engineering.

There will even be a role to play for Lakehead’s new law school, starting in September 2013, which will produce graduates specializing in natural resources and First Nations law.

The institute’s concept must still pass muster with the university senate, but Lakehead president Brian Stevenson and academic vice-president Rod Hanley are its biggest champions.

“There’s a huge push to have this happen,” said Hollings. “One of Brian’s passions is First Nations engagement and there’s a recognition that bringing these two parties together and resolving some of the challenges is a huge way to advance things in Northern Ontario.”

Stevenson worked on a similar initiative at the University of Alberta supporting that province’s energy industry that created a dozen research chairs.

Hollings said there is enough activity in the northwest to create chairs in mineral exploration – specializing in gold and nickel-chromite and on First Nations community engagement that will help flow research dollars.

Hollings hopes to make a formal announcement that the institute is a go by Christmas or possibly make a splash at the annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada’s conference in Toronto next March.