Fifty years ago, it was unheard of for mining companies to share the wealth and the benefits from their operations with Indigenous communities in Canada, much less be on speaking terms.
Times have dramatically changed with the massive need for 'critical minerals' to feed the emerging net-zero emissions economy. There's the pressure for mining companies to find and develop deposits while meeting their obligations to build trust with Indigenous people.
Today, there are Aboriginal-owned corporations in the resource sector engaged with remote operations in Canada where sometimes 70 per cent of the workforce is Indigenous, remarked Ken Coates, a University of Saskatchewan researcher and moderator of a recent webinar hosted by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute.
The event, entitled Mining, Indigenous Communities and our Resource-Dependent Future, focused on the evolution of the relationships between Canadian mining companies and Indigenous people with case studies from northern Saskatchewan and northern Quebec.
Indigenous leaders from these regions and executives from uranium miner Cameco and gold producer Newmont Corp. shared their successes and challenges in maintaining these sometimes complex relationships.
As with any mutually beneficial relationship, "it's still something that requires maintenance along the way," said Christina Gilpin, chief at the Cree Nation of Wemindji, a community of 1,500 people on the east coast of the mineral-rich James Bay region.
Newmont, operators of the Éléonore gold mine, is nurturing an already-established relationship with Wemindji and the Cree Nation that began in the early 2000s with a predecessor company, Virginia Mines.
"Wemindji was going through a process of whether or not mining was welcome in the Nation," explained John Mullally, Newmont's senior director of sustainability and external relations.
The acceptance of mining in this remote region only came together when there was complete alignment from Cree Nation senior leadership to local land and trapline stewards, known as tallymen.
An exploration agreement with Virginia Mines provided the promise of future employment and the relationship graduated into an impact benefit agreement (IBA), which the parties call a Collaboration Agreement. That pact provided a formal structure that's been fortified with various committees covering employment and training, business development, and environment, among others.
"To this day, we use the same structure and committees," said Gilpin. "It's proven to be successful."
It's a structure the parties lean on when things don't always go smoothly in the relationship. Gilpin said the ongoing work of the committee system and the flow of information always keep the lines of communication open.
Mullally sits on a collaboration committee with Gilpin and is always impressed with the candid conversations they are able to have. Both say the conversations are not always easy but they've been able to work out their differences.
In northern Saskatchewan, Darrel Burnouf, manager of business development and northern affairs for Cameco, said the Saskatoon-based uranium miner has always taken pride in being one of Canada's top Indigenous employers and has done "exceptionally well" with its community engagement processes.
In the 1990s, Cameco set targets of 67 per cent of northern employment with 35 per cent of goods and services procured from northern vendors. Many local companies over the years have "grown organically" to become providers in catering, trucking, civil construction, drilling and mining services," said Burnouf.
Today, Cameco has set an internal target of 79 per cent local procurement. "We haven't had below 70 per cent in about 15 years," Burnouf said.
The signing of IBAs with the "primary impacted" Indigenous communities near its operation has focused on workforce development, business development, community engagement and environmental stewardship. Over the years, they've upgraded Indigenous participation in the mining operations from early pick-and-shovel type jobs into apprenticeships and technicians.
The IBAs include life-of-mine contracts to northern companies and investment provisions in area First Nation communities.
The relationship has developed into a more inclusive and participatory one, said Burnouf, who sees the next stage evolving into the communities taking more of an equity position on mining projects.
While IBAs are improving the well-being and local economies for area communities closest to the mine sites, it can leave others, hundreds of kilometres away, feeling left out.
Duane Favel, mayor of the Île-à-la-Crosse, wants his community to be of part of that larger wealth generation.
While members of his Métis community have mining sector jobs, Île-à-la-Crosse does not have an IBA with Cameco and has been struggling to engage in that economy.
Favel said they're looking for a "more meaningful, long-term relationship with Cameco at a much higher level than it is right now."
He'd like to see government regulators create policy and guidelines ensuring the mining companies work directly with a wider range of communities in terms of investment and wealth creation.
While no relationship is perfect, Burnouf said, when it comes to dealing with disputes and conflict, Cameco falls back on adhering to its commitments and promises to recognize and show respect for local culture and language.
Dispute resolution mechanisms are built into their IBAs but Burnouf said they prefer to address problems with communities and individuals face to face, and in their own language, through community liaisons and Elders.
Newmont's Mullally said relationships can be tested when one company acquires another, as when Newmont acquired Goldcorp and the Éléonore Mine.
What eased the transition, he said, was having continuity among local management with familiar faces in human resources and communications who've stayed in place for more than a decade.
In sharing best practices, Chief Gilpin said Newmont stepped up during the pandemic, working in coordination with the Cree Nation health board in offering testing and vaccinations at the mine site to mitigate the risk to the entire population. Gilpin said it provided plenty of local reassurance and a relative feeling of safety.
"When the relationship was tested, we've come out stronger at the other end," said Mullally.
Gilpin mentioned Newmont has improved its communications and transparency with biannual presentations to the community on what's going on at the mine and has used social media more frequently to deliver updates.
For Cameco, the trust the company has built with northern Saskatchewan communities appears to have had far-reaching global influence.
In the western desert of Australia, Cameco was working with the Martu people, the native title holders of a 136,000-square-kilometre area, who had final say on a licence for a uranium property. The Martu leadership chose Cameco to be the developer, Burnouf said, because of the company's reputation through its work with Indigenous communities in Saskatchwan.
"That's a prime example of trust and partnership and mutual respect," said Burnouf.
During the webcast, Gilpin fielded a viewer question on what recommendations she can provide to First Nations working with a company at the early stages of exploration.
She responded the Cree Nation has a policy when dealing with all exploration companies operating in their traditional territory. The Cree Mineral Exploration Board acts as a liaison to notify her council on what junior mining companies want to work in their area.
After the Quebec government processes the company's mining claim, Gilpin invites them to a council meeting to outline the work they intend to do. She also makes a point of meeting them personally and asking a lot of questions. "Ask away."
Quite often, she finds, the exploration companies are transparent and will ask for local contacts to work with them.
Coates praised her community and the Cree Nation for its foresight in having an organization in place in anticipation of exploration.
"You don't wait until the drilling rig shows up to have a conversation. It's actually set up ahead of time and that's really, really important."