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THE DRIFT 2020: Indigenous mining strategy leading the way for positive relationships

Waubetek initiative bringing together Indigenous, mining interests
Waubetek’s Stacey Vincent Cress and Dawn Madahbee Leach rolled out the Association of Indigenous Mining Suppliers during PDAC 2019. (File photo)

As the mining industry starts to acknowledge the importance of Indigenous involvement in mineral resource development, Waubetek Business Development Corp. is taking the lead to ensure it’s done in a respectful, appropriate, and beneficial way.

In 2015, the business development corporation launched the Aboriginal Mining Strategy for North-East Ontario, which is anchored by four key pillars: develop Aboriginal mining industry knowledge; build mining industry relations; engage a skilled Aboriginal workforce; and promote Aboriginal business and partnerships.

Now, five years after its launch, the first initiatives under the strategy are finally taking shape – a welcome development for Dawn Madahbee Leach, Waubetek’s long-time general manager.

“The Indigenous people, I think, will be an important voice going forward in any type of resource development as we look at trying to do resource development in a sustainable way that recognizes the climate crisis that we’re in,” Madahbee Leach said.

“I think that the Indigenous view is going to be important in many respects.”

The first piece to the strategy is the Association of Indigenous Mining Suppliers, which was launched in Toronto during the 2019 Prospectors and Developers of Canada (PDAC) convention.

A database of companies and skilled people working in the sector, it’s designed to help mining companies connect with Indigenous mining suppliers. For example, it will be particularly beneficial to help fulfill procurement requirements outlined in impact benefit agreements, Madahbee Leach said.

It also aims to offer guidance and mentorship to Indigenous businesses newly entering the sector.

In 2020, the association will undertake a human resources inventory, and will also host a series of roundtable discussions for companies and Indigenous representatives, as an introduction to understand each other’s needs and viewpoints, Madahbee Leach said.

“We’re looking at hosting roundtables so that people will get to know each other in a more positive forum,” she noted. “Just for them to start knowing who each other is, who the players are, and maybe there are some synergies there that they can start building on.”

Over the winter, Waubetek rolled out the second element of the strategy – the Centre of Excellence for Indigenous Mining Development – which will act as a clearinghouse of information on best practices related to consultation with Indigenous peoples in advance of mineral exploration and development.

Mining companies seeking to explore or develop in traditional Indigenous territories will be able to consult the clearinghouse for the proper protocols to initiate discussions with Indigenous communities.

It will also help Indigenous communities wanting guidance on what to do when they’re approached by a company looking to do exploration work in their territories, or refer them to industry experts like lawyers or accountants.

Based at Sudbury’s Willet Green Miller Centre on the Laurentian University campus, the centre’s three-person team will include an executive director, a research director, and a research and administrative assistant, who will be overseen by a volunteer board.

Progress on the centre reached a milestone in January 2019 when it received $1.1 million in federal startup funding.

But the bigger achievement came last fall when Waubetek announced a partnership with Rio Tinto, which has committed $1 million over five years, along with technical expertise, to the centre.

Bringing on board one of the world’s largest mining companies has been exciting, Madahbee Leach said, especially since Rio has voiced its dedication to sustainable mining.

“They realize that, although they have some good working relationships with Indigenous people around the world, there could be an improvement,” she said, “and they agreed with the vision that we have for the centre to build capacity amongst Indigenous people to make informed decisions when it comes to resource development and mineral development.”

The centre continues to pursue additional mining companies to partner with, she added; in particular, those that are engaged in undertaking mineral development in a different way.

Though the centre was originally envisioned as a strategy specific to Northern Ontario, Madahbee Leach said they’re quickly realizing that this type of service has global appeal.

Waubetek has been in contact with Indigenous communities in mining jurisdictions around the globe, such as Australia and Sweden, she said, which have expressed interest in replicating the model at home.

Indigenous communities are motivated by a desire to protect the land and natural resources, she noted, and yet they recognize the ongoing need for minerals for everything from modern technology to medical equipment.

“I don’t think we need to focus on minerals that are going to devastate our earth and our water resources, our natural resources; we need to do everything in a sustainable way and only take what is necessary to sustain human life,” she said.

“I think it’s going to be a focus that Indigenous people can bring to the table and the discussion on mineral development.”

The Drift magazine features profiles on the people and companies making important contributions to the Northern Ontario mining service and supply sector. It is published annually and distributed at the Northern Ontario Mining Showcase during the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference in Toronto.