Ring of Fire: Can struggling First Nations benefit from mineral bonanza? – by Heather Scoffield (iPolitics – December 26, 2012)


FORT HOPE FIRST NATION, Ont. — Roland Okeese is watching with keen interest as mining companies from around the world stake claims in the area around his remote northern Ontario reserve.

The 36-year-old father of six and grandfather of two is in his prime — strong, healthy and hopeful for a new career supporting the mining activity in the Ring of Fire. For Okeese and so many other community members, however, the path from here to there is difficult.

Okeese knows the wild country well. He’s good with a power saw. He has a few months’ experience doing contract work for Noront Resources. But for much of his adult life, he was wrestling with an addiction to the prescription painkiller OxyContin. He didn’t graduate from high school. And his formal training is minimal.

“I’d like for the (mining) to happen. I’d choose to be working,” he said defiantly, recognizing that some in his community don’t share his view. “But I don’t have the skills.” It’s a problem that needs to be resolved soon if a local workforce is to benefit fully from the mining activity poised to take off in the Ring of Fire.

Indeed, there is a newly formed consensus among federal and provincial officials, native communities and major companies that aggressive training programs need to be set in place now.

“We’re worried about that because I don’t think it’s too early to get started even right now,” said Bill Boor, senior vice-president of global ferroalloys for Cliffs Natural Resources, a multinational mining company that wants to go into production in 2016 or 2017.

“We need a lot of employees for this type of operation … We’re very anxious to get started.”

The experience of Attawapiskat and the de Beer’s Victor diamond mine is proving instructive for all parties. Attawapiskat First Nation is on the northern side of the Ring of Fire development. While Victor has a large aboriginal workforce, the Attawapiskat community frequently complains that it doesn’t get its share of the bounty from the mine.

A federal review of the relationship between Victor and Attawapiskat shows that government support for training and capacity did not start soon enough to deal with the lack of skills in the First Nation.

This time, all sides say they want to do it right — and that means starting now.

Toronto-based Noront, which wants to open a nickel mine, is in the midst of forming a coalition with the drilling program at a college in nearby Thunder Bay, and looking at ways to bring the training programs into local communities so that potential workers don’t need to travel far from home.

The company aims to have a third of its workforce requirements filled by local aboriginal workers, far higher than the national mining-sector average of about eight per cent, said Leanne Hall, Noront’s vice-president of human resources.

For the rest of this article, please go to the iPolitics.com website: http://www.ipolitics.ca/2012/12/26/ring-of-fire-can-struggling-first-nations-benefit-from-mineral-bonanza/