Trust, compromise required to resolve overlapping territory [Wabun Tribal Council] – by Shawn Batise (Onotassiniik Magazine – Spring 2014)

The following is from a presentation by Shawn Batise at the 2013 Mining Ready Summit in Timmins, hosted by Nishnawbe Aski Development Fund. Batise is executive director of Wabun Tribal Council, which has six member First Nations: Beaverhouse, Brunswick House, Chapleau Ojibwe, Flying Post, Matechewan, and Mattagami.

I’ve been involved with Wabun Tribal Council since it started in 1990. The Wabun communities are in northeastern Ontario, all within about a two-hour drive of Timmins. Their traditional territories kind of intersect here in Timmins.

It’s the busiest area in the province in terms of mining exploration and development, and mining has become top of mind in most of the communities of our tribal council. With our participation in resource development over the past five to seven years, I’ve never seen more growth in the communities in terms of wealth, health, better jobs … being economically well off.

A large part of it is because of what we’ve been able to do in the tribal council area, with the help of the First Nations, obviously, in negotiating agreements around mining development. Things have really taken off. We’ve created a number of businesses servicing the industry that have been very successful.

Collectively, our First Nations have signed three impact and benefit agreements (IBAs) in the past six years or so.

We’re currently in the negotiation of three other IBAs and are hopeful two of them will be concluded in the coming months. An additional IBA negotiation could begin soon. These are mostly for gold mining properties, plus one nickel mining property.

On top of that, we’ve negotiated about 30 exploration agreements over the same period. By this time next year we fully expect to have 40-50 agreements – memorandums of understanding or exploration agreements with junior mining companies.

This has all been made possible through the collective will and drive of the First Nations leadership. Certainly without the chiefs working together this never would have been possible.

Some of the things we get asked most often asked are: How do you guys do it? How do you create the environment where you work together on resource development? How do you decide or determine overlap of territories? How do you come to agreements with developers amongst yourselves, whether it’s a one-community agreement or a multi-community agreement?

Really, the only answer I have is trust – something we’ve been able to build up over a number of years.

I think a lot has to do with the fact that most of the staff at the tribal council – including myself and Jason Batise, economic development and technical services advisor for Wabun – have been around for 20-odd years. We’ve worked with the current leadership since they’ve been elected, or longer. Chief Walter Naveau of Mattagami, for example, has been chief for the last seven years but I’ve also worked with him in his previous roles, as a councillor and as a program worker in the community. So there’s a trust that we’ve built up.

That’s been the key element in our success.

For those of you that aren’t there yet, as Chief Naveau said (in welcoming remarks at the NADF Mining Ready Summit), “Dialogue. Dialogue amongst yourselves and work together. That’s the only way we’re going to achieve success long term.”

I think the agreements we have are very good agreements – fair to both sides.
We’ve largely standardized our exploration agreements; about 75 per cent of them are exactly the same. And there’s very little variance in the ones that are different. We always go to the exploration company and say, “Look, here’s our agreement, do you want to negotiate it? We’re open to some pieces of negotiation but for the most part, the company with the property right beside you has signed the same agreement, so why shouldn’t you?”

Our hope is to publicize our agreement at some point – all of the details of it – to make it available for other communities to copy or use as they want. We fully expect there will be some criticism by First Nations or First Nations groups once we’ve done this but our chiefs are willing to lead by example. We certainly think our agreement is a best practice.

We also work with communities outside of Wabun that share traditional territories with us. Where there is territorial overlap, we invite them into agreements with us rather than doing our own agreements. One agreement is best for leverage with mining companies, otherwise they’re going to set some benefits aside for other agreements and you’re going to leave something on the table.

You can have the best agreement but sometimes the failing is communities not working together with regards to territorial overlap. I believe, and I’ve said it many times in many conferences, that this is the biggest threat to development in any territory, whether it’s here or the Ring of Fire or anywhere else in Canada. If communities can’t work together to come to a shared understanding of the territory, it’s not going to work.

It requires some trust. It certainly requires a lot of dialogue. And it requires some compromise. It doesn’t just require compromise of one party; everybody has to compromise.

And that’s what we’ve collectively done in Wabun. All of our communities have territory that overlaps so significantly they could say, “All the way over across to other side, that’s my territory and I want a piece of that project.” But we undertook to decide amongst ourselves how we’re going to share. It took us a few years to get there and it required a lot of compromise.

One thing is for sure: no one is going to solve that problem of overlap for us. Government is not going to do it and industry is not going to do it. It’s up to us as First Nations.

Without dialogue and compromise among us, industry will not have certainty. Without certainty, there won’t be any investment. And without any investment, there won’t be development.

So, if you want development in your communities, you need to work together wherever there’s overlap.


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