COMMENT: First Nations beating war drums – by Marilyn Scales (Canadian Mining Journal – April 13, 2015)

Marilyn Scales is a field editor for the Canadian Mining Journal, Canada’s first mining publication. She is one of Canada’s most senior mining commentators.

I read a couple news releases last week involving complaints by First Nations about being left out of resource development decisions. No one doubts that they must be included. The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent rulings give weight to their claims.

But what is to be gained by opposing Noront’s desire to acquire those lands abandoned by Cliffs Natural Resources?

Chief Sonny Gagnon of Aroland First Nation put it thus: “With Noront’s announcement that it is trying to acquire the Cliffs assets, our First Nations have effectively been denied a real opportunity to benefit from key resources in our lands on our terms. This unilateral move by Noront is unacceptable to our First Nations.”

To say the First Nations have been sidelined already is a bit premature. Unless the chief is intimating that the First Nations have the wherewithal (think money) to buy out Cliffs and stage a multi-billion-dollar resource development themselves.

If the First Nations have a beef with Noront or don’t want to meet the company to work out economic participation, why is that? Again and again Canadian companies have shown that they welcome First Nation participation on many levels.

Noront has shown more willingness to compromise than the American company that declared it didn’t know how it could develop a profitable operation if aboriginal peoples were involved, closed its camp, and scurried south of the border.

Oh, here is the rub perhaps. Gagnon continued, “We are very disappointed that Cliffs Natural Resources Canada failed its duty to consult First Nations before selling the chrome assets.”

Again, it sounds like the First Nation’s beef is with the Americans, not Noront.

“We want to have a front seat, not a back seat, to planning the mining development and mining infrastructure in our territories,” said councillor Linda Moonias of Marten Falls First Nation. “We will not stand and watch another development in our lands without our effective and equitable participation.”

Fair enough. No one has said the First Nations will not have a meaningful say in how the economic benefits from the Ring of Fire are shared. But the attitude espoused by Moonias is presumptive, considering no one has tried to exclude them from participation – except maybe Cliffs, and at this point the only benefit to be shared is part of the money Noront has offered to Cliffs. No real economic benefit from the land has yet been realized.

Nor are the Marten and Aroland First Nations the only ones to bring aboriginal participation to the news wires last week.

Perry Bellegarde, leader of the Assembly of First Nations, hinted that if First Nations are not active participants in resource development, they will exercise political power and civil disobedience such as occupying disputed lands.

Bellegarde’s complaints pertain not to the Ring of Fire but to the oil sands and the pipelines proposed to carry that oil to market. He blasts the federal government for failing to include aboriginals in that planning and development process. His threat to delay projects and tie them up in court challenges may have real teeth. The consequences of trying to bypass meaningful co-operation by parties on all levels – aboriginal, business and governments – becomes unacceptable.

Would it be so difficult for First Nations to take the first step and approach potential resource development companies? Step up and work out potential differences face to face rather than as distrustful and wronged parties.

Both sides have much to offer each other, and a strong Canadian resource sector is worth expanding.