When Glenn Nolan first attended the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada's (PDAC) annual spring convention in 2004, there were a couple dozen Aboriginal faces in the crowd among the world's mining heavyweights.
The agenda set aside for First Nations discussion was small, and was reflective of the state of the mining industry's relations with Canada's indigenous people.
“When we started doing Aboriginal sessions, it was all about conflict,” said Nolan, who serves as Noront Resources' vice-president of Aboriginal relations.
Things are decidedly different heading into this month's show in Toronto.
PDAC corporate membership rolls list about 400 who are self-identified Inuit, Metis and First Nation delegates.
And the Aboriginal program, stretched out over the four-day event, promotes and celebrates First Nation-industry joint ventures, best practices in exploration agreements, and how companies can tap into a hidden and growing talent pool of young people.
Close to Nolan's heart is that it'll be the fifth year of the Skookum Jim Award, which recognizes an Aboriginal entrepreneur or company that's demonstrated 'exceptional achievement' in the industry.
The progress made is thrilling to Nolan, who'll be centre stage at this month's gathering when outgoing PDAC president Scott Jobin-Bevans hands over the reigns – or at least the microphone – to the former chief of the Missanawbi Cree.
Nolan will become the first Aboriginal president in the history of the 80-year-old organization.
“It's kinda cool and I'm pretty excited about it, as well as being the face and voice of an association that's growing by leaps and bounds.”
Nolan prefers to downplay the significance, focusing instead on furthering his advocacy work, packing for his busy international travel schedule, and forging a more entrepreneurial and education-based partnership with the Assembly of First Nations.
His ascension was inevitable when he became the PDAC's second vice-president four years ago. It was a cultural shift in the association's thinking.
“It's a huge opportunity for me, but it's not about me putting my mark on things. With my position and relationship with Aboriginal people, I can really get out and start talking about my experience in the industry and show what is possible.”
Nolan grew up in a northeastern Ontario mining camp where his dad worked a variety of jobs at the Renabie Mine near Wawa.
Family life there, with an abundant dinner table, showed what hard work could accomplish, and eased him into a prospecting career in Western Canada and the High Arctic.
A graduate of Sault College's now-defunct geological technicians program in the late 1970s, Nolan briefly worked with Cameco before starting his own contracting outfit.
He unknowingly segued into Aboriginal affairs while working in northern Saskatchewan. Rather than fly in crews from the south, he hired locals for claimstaking and line-cutting.
“I never thought it was really unique, it was cost-saving,” said Nolan. “And it was very trainable work, all you needed at the time was a sharp axe.”
Tracking down chiefs took extra effort, but it built trust and became an expectation he later placed on junior miners working on Missanawbi lands.
“I started reading about companies working in my territory and thought, why aren't they contacting us?
“That took a while for companies to understand that they had (a legal duty to consult) and I built a reputation that I was very fair and wasn't there to push them off the land, but find out what kind of businesses we could get involved with.”
His appearances at the PDAC sparked discussions with junior miners and he was encouraged to join the board.
Becoming the new ambassador for Canadian mining is timely.
An exciting exploration field season in Northern Ontario lies ahead; new mines are coming online, especially in the James Bay Ring of Fire; and First Nations are involved like never before.
“Society really dictates change, it's not government,” said Nolan. “When the public says we've got to change the way we do things and be sensitive to Aboriginal issues or environmental issues or gay rights, you have to do it better.”
Nolan compares this period to the environmental movement of the early 1970s, only this time the buzzwords are: corporate society responsibility.
“It's an exciting time for the industry and I'm glad I'm part of it at this level.”
His work has taken him internationally, including South America where he's volunteering with small communities in southeastern Ecuador on starting business initiatives, including a mining company that's looking for a Canadian partner.
As a former chief himself, Nolan knows how communities react when big industry comes calling.
“We run into tough things with this business, but it's nothing being a chief.”
There are constant stresses in dealing with a myriad of on-reserve social issues from prescription drug addiction to housing to potable water.
Answering a message from a mining company is not a high priority.
“That's what brings my value to Noront, understanding that sensitivity and the pressure that the communities are under on a daily basis.”
With a developing nickel sulphide and chromite deposit in the James Bay lowlands, he credits Noront President Wes Hanson and COO Paul Semple for recognizing the importance of face time in the communities to solidify relations.
“It's a real balancing act to ensure that you're not overwhelming the community with requests.”
No doubt, the Ring of Fire developments will be transformative for First Nations, but Nolan said what's key to rejunevating these communities is training at the entry-level stages.
“As an industry we want to build their capacity so they go beyond exploration to the development and operational stage. We can help them with their skill set.”
Aboriginal people will not only take ownership of their roles, he said, but they'll become integral to operations and demonstrate their capabilities within their home communities.
Nolan said 80 per cent of jobs generated from a mine development – such as heavy equipment operators, blasters, apprenticeship jobs, short order cooks, janitors – are trainable and can be done mostly on-site.
He would like to see the PDAC do more to promote mining careers with First Nations at an introductory level with schools, similar to its Mining Matters program.
Toronto communications specialist Stan Sudol, who blogs on the Canadian mining industry, said Nolan's appointment “symbolizes to all Canadians that the future of mining and First Nation prosperity are closely linked.”
He said Nolan's presence as head of the PDAC is a “powerful symbol to the next generation of Aboriginal students to stay in school as there is no limit to how high they can rise within the mineral sector.”