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Forging new bonds with First Nations

Indigenous-led AurCrest Gold sees a shared future with remote communities in northwestern Ontario
Chris Angeconeb 2
As the savvy economic developer manager at Lac Seul First Nation, Chris Angeconeb (shown here in 2014) was a popular man when he helped the northwestern Ontario band secure a Tim Hortons franchise for nearby Sioux Lookout. As boss of AurCrest Gold, his relationship-building skills are blazing new paths for Indigenous involvement in mineral exploration.

A pioneering First Nation-led gold exploration and sustainable energy company has moved beyond having a social licence to operate by forging deeper bonds with remote communities.

When Chris Angeconeb took the helm as AurCrest Gold’s president and CEO in March 2017, he was determined to build upon the good faith relationships the company had fostered with First Nation communities in northwestern Ontario, and then take it a step farther.

Upon joining the Toronto junior miner as a director in 2011, his knowledge of mining was admittedly limited.

A handful of his uncles and cousins had worked in the industry and he’d received an earlier indoctrination while taking a course at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie taught by MiningWatch co-founder Joan Kuyek.

His home community of Lac Seul First Nation, an expansive reserve of three communities located 40 kilometres west of Sioux Lookout, was suddenly flush with millions of dollars after settling an historic flooding grievance and winning a major timber trespass court victory.

Lac Seul invested $500,000 of that money in AurCrest, a small junior mining company operating in their traditional lands.

Lac Seul took a 9.9 per cent ownership stake to become the company’s third largest shareholder. Angeconeb was appointed by the band council to serve on the board of directors.

AurCrest already enjoyed a good reputation in the community.

Angeconeb’s predecessor, Ian Brodie-Brown, the company’s current director of business development, was a familiar site in the area when he first appeared on the scene as president of Tribute Minerals in the mid-2000s, then a base metal explorer probing the ground at Confederation Lake in Lac Seul’s traditional territory.

If a prospector or junior miner wanted to advance a project in Northern Ontario, it became evident that First Nations consultation was eventually going to be the new modus operandi.

So Brown began cultivating relationships with communities, advising them of his exploration plans well in advance of filing the paperwork and long before it was a provincial requirement to obtain First Nations approval under the revamped Mining Act in 2012.

“It was a rough go,” remembers Angeconeb of his early days on the board. Precious metal prices tanked soon after Lac Seul became an owner.

“The largest effort has been making sure the company survives through to the next upturn, which seems to be happening now.”

Although not a geologist, what Angeconeb brought to the table was an extensive background in land management and community development.

In various roles with Lac Seul, he proved to be a skilled negotiator and relationship builder, working with the Crown and industry as the band’s point man on consultation and accommodation.

Later, as its very entrepreneurial-minded economic development manager, he built an impressive track record in striking mineral exploration, industry and retail franchising agreements that provided training and employment opportunities for band members.

From a director’s position, he was soon elevated to AurCrest’s executive vice-president’s position in 2017, where he put his stamp on the company philosophy.

“When I became executive vice-president, we started to take a stronger tact towards getting away from the whole concept of consultation and accommodation and moving toward partnership and inclusion.”

Historically, Indigenous prospectors have played extensive, but seldom-told, roles in many of Northern Ontario’s major mineral discoveries.

Yet nearby First Nation communities were always left out in the cold in receiving any of the economic spinoffs despite the mines being situated in their backyards.

“Resource development always excluded First Nations and the wealth generation that came with it,” said Angeconeb.

Before digital map-staking came into force, AurCrest employed local people and contractors to do line-cutting, construct their exploration camp, and the company hosted a training program for drillers’ helpers.

By signing mineral staking agreements with Lac Seul and Cat Lake First Nation in 2017, they opened the door for community members to be their eyes on the ground.

Angeconeb sought to tap into locals’ knowledge of their traditional land and create a scouting system that might lead to potential new discoveries.

“The people in the communities have been going out to their trap lines and favourite hunting areas for generations,” said Angeconeb.

“I know from my own experience going out north of Sioux Lookout and around Lac Seul, there are lots of cool areas from where I’ve got rocks in my basement that really don’t show up on anybody’s radar.”

A band member can bring forward unstaked mineral prospects through the band office to AurCrest, and the claim is registered on their behalf.

Should it become a discovery, AurCrest can be optioned to do the exploration work or the claim can be vended to someone else.

The First Nation becomes the NSR (net smelter return) holders.

“It’s the relationship building with the communities themselves to get them comfortable bringing new prospects to AurCrest,” said Angeconeb.

AurCrest’s main focus is its Richardson Lake project, located 100 kilometres northeast of Red Lake, where the company made a significant gold discovery in an iron formation.

To the south is First Mining Gold’s Springpole deposit where a preliminary economic assessment released last fall predicted a 12-year mine life for an open-pit gold and silver operation.

AurCrest has an exploration plan approved for 6,000 metres of drilling at Richardson Lake.

Before filing their plan with the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, Angeconeb approached area bands to lay out their intentions and spell out the local business opportunities.

It was a mere formality afterward for the government to notify the communities of their upcoming activity.

Should Richardson Lake prove economical to become a mine, Angeconeb said they’ve been encouraged to take it through to commercial production.

“If it’s there, the communities themselves want it to be an Indigenous mining opportunity.”

In promoting itself as Canada’s first publicly-traded gold mining company owned and led by a First Nation president, Angeconeb said they’ve attracted a socially conscious and philanthropic-minded investor with a belief system consistent with the United Nations’ Declaration of Rights of Indigenous people.

“It’s brought an investor base over to us that we didn’t have access to before.”

And it’s provided him with invaluable networking and speaking opportunities at mining and big business functions to demonstrate the industry’s changing face and show the benefits of partnerships with First Nations as a means to de-risk exploration plays.

The next stage in AurCrest’s First Nations inclusion strategy is the creation of a subsidiary, Wiigwaasaatig Energy (Ojibway for birch tree).

The mandate is to develop renewable and sustainable energy infrastructure that area communities would eventually own and operate.

The company signed a letter of intent with Cat Lake First Nation to build a 40-megawatt biomass gasification facility last year.

The idea was hatched by First Nation chiefs during the early planning stages of the massive $1.6-billion Wataynikaneyap Power (Watay Power) transmission project, currently under construction, to connect 19 remote First Nation communities to Ontario’s power grid.

Angeconeb sees it as a vehicle for First Nations to generate income by feeding locally-sourced power into the radial line network, rather than the current diesel fuel-dependent communities continuing to be importers of power.

Having new sources of electrical generation with hydroelectric, wind and solar development would also prove beneficial to any future remote mines.

He expects more communities will come aboard once their respective provincial land-use planning processes are concluded.

Further opportunities would emerge for First Nation communities to gain control of forest management units to harvest and carry out value-added forestry to create the biomass necessary for power generation.