The Aboriginal Relations Branch of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines is reaching out to the mining sector to share its evolving approach to Aboriginal affairs and its insight into conducting business with First Nations and Métis communities.
Bernie Hughes, director of the Aboriginal Relations Branch, and Teri McDonald, land claims specialist and team lead, have been criss-crossing the province delivering their “Aboriginal affairs 101” talk to industry groups like the Sudbury Prospector and Developers Association.
Stops so far have included Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie, Timmins, Sudbury, Kirkland Lake and Tweed (about an hour northeast of Peterborough).
As more jurisprudence and provincial and Supreme Court laws are established around treaty rights, consultation, and Aboriginal title, the area of Aboriginal relations in mineral exploration and development is rapidly evolving, Hughes said.
“We’re in a time right now where things are changing,” said Hughes, and all parties are learning how to navigate this new landscape.
Industry feels a lack of certainty in getting access to the land, First Nation and Métis communities are trying to improve their socioeconomic status, and governments are trying to navigate historic treaties and Aboriginal treaty rights, he noted.
“But all of us are still at an early stage of this shifting environment,” Hughes said, “and I think that we’re already at a point where we’re understanding what we need to do with respect to focusing on and improving the socioeconomic status of First Nations and Métis.”
Hughes pointed to Neskantaga’s 22-year boil water advisory, or the lack of good housing and other infrastructure on many other Northern reserves as examples of communities living “way below the standards that the rest of our society would never accept.”
That’s why First Nations and Métis communities are seeking consultation, not only to benefit economically with jobs and resource revenue-sharing agreements, but also to ensure their traditional lands won’t be irreparably damaged by development, he noted.
Before starting work with the ministry, McDonald, a lawyer who is of Aboriginal descent, had been working for the western Canada branch of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hearing evidence about the impact of the residential school system on survivors.
She said a key component of reconciliation is forging relationships between parties based on peace, friendship, and mutual respect, and that same standard should be upheld when embarking on discussions around mineral exploration.
“Often you can’t have a conversation about consultation without also talking about the relationship, talking about capacity needs, talking about the benefits, and talking about the process,” McDonald said. “So, all of those pieces, from the Aboriginal perspective, you can’t have one without the other.”
Each scenario is different and that can present challenges, McDonald said. But there are tools available: best practices, models for agreement, and education can help build bridges between Aboriginal communities and industry.
Often, Aboriginal communities are simply looking for recognition of jurisdiction over their traditional lands and the right to benefit from any potential developments slated for those lands, she added.
“If you can work with the community to try and understand their interests, their perspectives, there’s opportunity in those differences,” McDonald said.
“If we’re able to get back to those very simple principles of trust, friendship, peace, mutual respect, I think the opportunities for moving forward together will start to bear themselves out.”
The ministry has several agreements in place with First Nations tribal councils across the province, and is trying to help the communities increase their knowledge of the mineral sector. Building capacity is a challenge, and it’s not a change that will happen overnight, Hughes said.
But the Crown maintains its responsibility for balancing Aboriginal interests with the interests of non-Aboriginal society, and the ministry will continue to work on that, he said.
“The Aboriginal environment is now a part of resource development and that’s not going to change,” Hughes said.
Responding to criticism that the province is moving at a glacial pace in effecting change, Hughes said he believes Ontario now realizes it has to play catchup, but it’s serious in its intention to work with the Aboriginal community. That will be the tipping point, he believes, to helping a part of the population that has essentially been neglected.
“The deeper things will take time, but once people start to feel that they’re a part of society and can feel good about that, that will spin out into the work that we do,” Hughes said.
“I think there will be an ability to carry out our work in the mineral sector, in particular. It’ll be a little bit easier, and there will be more acceptance of it as people have been involved in the process.”
Hughes said the ministry will continue to make itself available to both industry and Aboriginal communities, in addition to giving presentations as requested.