In arguing for Indigenous consultation prior to the start of mining development, Lorraine Rekmans looks to her home community as a cautionary tale.
Serpent River First Nation was “left holding the bag” in the 1990s when tailings ponds from uranium mines in nearby Elliot Lake failed, spilling into the watershed that serves the area, she said.
The mines were decommissioned before current standards and regulations came into place, and mining companies were largely absolved of responsibility, decamping for the newest uranium camp in Saskatchewan.
“Fifty years ago, there was a mining company here — it’s gone,” said Rekmans, an environmental and social justice advocate and a member of the Serpent River First Nation.
“That will be a flash in the pan in history. The stability, the economic surety of a corporation, how long a corporation lives: they do not live as long as the memories of the people who live in the same place forever.”
It’s now a duty of the Crown to consult with Indigenous communities before approving projects. But Rekmans argues that it’s also good business for mining companies to include the Indigenous perspective from the start.
“We plan for seven generations; we want to protect ecological integrity,” she said. “When people are looking for partners, that’s a pretty good partner to have, if you have an economist, if you have an economic analyst, a geologist, maybe a protector of mother earth on the team.”
Rekmans was part of a recent panel discussion at the University of Sudbury, speaking on the topic of Indigenous Peoples and Mining: Exploring Relations into the Future.
Sudbury-area Wahnapitae First Nation had already been engaging with mining companies for a few years by the time of the Elliot Lake spill.
But the incident galvanized the community in its goal to become more directly involved in the development projects happening in and around its traditional territory, said Cheryl Recollet, Wahnapitae First Nation’s director of sustainable development.
“We try to use informed decision-making, the most accurate information and technology to produce informed decisions, and provide recommendations to the community and the leadership,” she said.
The community created a model for sustainable development, into which several considerations are made: economic development, culture, social, environmental, and leadership.
A decision about each potential partnership is made based on whether it complements the community’s needs, has a high priority on preserving the environment, and whether it bolsters youth and community business.
The community has since forged partnerships with Glencore, INCO (now Vale), and KGHM, among others. However, when asked what the mining community could do to increase the number of Indigenous peoples in mining, panelists suggested the mining community needs to entirely adjust its way of thinking and doing business.
Maurice Switzer, principal at Nimkii Communications, a public education practice, said there is a long legacy of mistrust between the government and First Nation communities that still today impacts Indigenous peoples’ ability to access education.
“For many generations, if people in First Nations did really want to improve their lot in life, they would have to surrender their status to attend university — that’s an intergenerational thing,” he said.
Switzer said it’s a false argument to claim that the North is losing its talent pool to southern Ontario when Northern Ontario’s Indigenous population marks the “largest pool of trainable people in Canada and Northern Ontario.”
“There is a huge potentially trainable group of young, Indigenous peoples that could fill all of those skilled trade jobs, and we have to ask ourselves, ‘Why aren’t they being given the chance?’” Switzer said.
“A lot of the answers to that question are not very nice answers — it’s because people don’t think that we’re capable.”
Rekmans even went one step further to say that the Indigenous perspective varies drastically from the one typically held by mining companies, which suggests finding a solution within the current mining practices.
Instead of focusing on the capitalist approach of extracting metals and making as much money as possible, mining companies need to think about what they’re doing for the next seven generations.
Indigenous peoples come from a collective society where everything is shared and the community is taken care of as a whole.
“We’ve seen this over 500 years, watching the settlers and how they’ve built this capitalist marketplace based on extraction of natural resources and we see food banks, and we see poverty, and we see polarization, and now you’re asking us why we don’t want to go along,” Rekmans said.
Rekmans said communities are also living “inside the Indian Act,” which has underfunded Indigenous education for decades, putting Indigenous people at a disadvantage.
Besides securing jobs, Ugo Lapointe, the Canadian program coordinator at MiningWatch, said Indigenous communities are seeking fresh water, road access and electricity; all basic amenities that many communities don’t have.
“We think that, as a society, we should be focused on the fundamental needs of those communities first, get them where they need to be, and then they might be ready to take on some of those jobs when they come along,” he said.
“But sometimes there are such discrepancies between hopes and realities and the needs of the communities and Canadian society’s expectations.”