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Opinion: Indigenous engagement is transforming the future of mining

New partnerships bridge the gap between industry and community, according to Harold Reimer
Indigenous engagement is evolving, and suppliers are learning new ways to collaborate on the journey towards economic reconciliation, writes Harold Reimer | Michael Dunning/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Canada’s mining sector has an extensive history, with minerals playing a vital role in day-to-day life going back thousands of years. Since then, much has changed and the industry has experienced innumerable advancements, including in technology, safety, and sustainability. More recently, one of the most significant developments has been the official recognition of the traditional lands of Indigenous communities that many Canadian mines are located on. The recognition and accompanying legislation give communities better representation and more leverage in the mining process. That is why Indigenous community partnerships are becoming even more important and the relationship between industry and Indigenous communities is transforming. It helps pave the way towards economic reconciliation.

While the process is new to many, some suppliers are in a unique situation where they can support as a liaison to consult and understand. This allows for a bridging between the industry and Indigenous communities where there is an opportunity to reach out, engage, and educate. What we are seeing is an approach to seek social licence and the discussions taking place are leading to impact benefit agreements (IBAs), capacity agreements, and mutual benefit agreements. It is leading to greater information sharing, better consultations, engagements, and consent for respective projects.

As minerals continue to play a critical role in day-to-day life, including to support the energy transition with electrification and low-carbon technology, it becomes increasingly important to support our Indigenous communities with their stewardship action plans that are based on traditional knowledge since time immemorial. National Resources Canada states that “Indigenous representation in the minerals sector has increased in the last decade, especially in the mining industry. Working with First Nations Territories can help support the future success of Canada’s mining industry.” Additionally, in 2021, the direct contribution of Canada’s minerals and metals sector to national GDP was $97 billion, which represented four per cent of Canada’s total GDP.

Shift from duty to consult to right to consent

At the core of this shift are significant declarations. We must acknowledge and understand the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) that was adopted in 2007 and given Royal Assent by the Government of Canada in 2021. The declarations state that “Indigenous People have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development of use of their lands or territories and other resources.”

The result is the change from duty to consult to right to consent (Free, Prior and Informed Consent, FPIC). The key difference is that new projects now hinge on the rights of Indigenous Peoples to give or withhold their consent for any action that would affect their lands, territories, or rights. This requires active engagement, strong relationships, and partnerships between the mining industry, the suppliers, and the Indigenous communities. It is helping to shift conversations and involve the local communities at project onset to understand their views and desires and incorporate them into the plan, rather than consult communities at the final stages.

Right to consent has been instrumental in ushering in meaningful engagement between those who are proposing a project and those whose traditional livelihoods could be impacted by that disturbance. With new legislation and rulings placing FPIC in the forefront, there have been significant changes that genuinely see collaboration and the resulting benefits in working with Indigenous communities. So, it is important to get out in the field to identify what is happening and what the implications are for suppliers, industries, and the impacted communities. Establishing good relationships is at the core of every business. Those relationships overlap in communities where we work, live, and play. The pace of change has accelerated in the last 24 to 36 months, and there is now more engagement in environmental assessments, permits, and water licensing as Indigenous involvement and consent is required for every project and proposal.

Building bridges between communities

Deep rooted for generations, Indigenous relationships thrive in person-to-person dynamics and oral communication. Businesses have the honour and privilege to learn from Indigenous leaders, Elders, and Knowledge Keepers. Through this learning, it is possible to understand historical provisions of the land, ceremonial, and spiritual traditions. From a western Canadian perspective, the territory is vast. There are over 300 First Nations communities in Finning’s territory and endeavouring to connect with every community is ambitious. But, by proactively starting the process and engaging one by one and at the beginning of a mining project, this act builds trust and lasting connections.

Many First Nations have already established long-term operations. They operate full economic development teams with a CEO and an established board of directors. Within this structured network, the communication between all the stakeholders is facilitated and flows from economic development through discernment by the Chief and council to the eldership and in some cases to the membership for voting. The systems operate very well and a synergy between industry and community exists. Alternatively, some Nations are at the beginning of the economic development process and desire consultation for the establishment of a strong economic development team and identification of good board of director prospects. Active involvement, consultation, and communication by representatives from all industries leads to the discovery of a Nation’s unique needs and requirements for projects and future economic development.

Exciting opportunities for the future

This is an exciting time for doing business. Indigenous engagement is evolving, and suppliers are learning new ways to collaborate on the journey towards economic reconciliation. Problems can be overcome together, and opportunities for education, apprenticeship and mentorship can be unearthed. Project legacy is not superficial; it becomes part of the unified statement that honours the territorial, social, and spiritual connection to the traditional lands and provisions. It means that communities are engaged, and their specific needs are met, whether that means waterway and biodiversity protection, economic and education opportunities, or other specific considerations that help a community flourish.

We are starting to see a future full of opportunities to partner and embrace developments around mineral exploration, hydrogen, LNG, fleet electrification, alternative fuels, and power generation. Better understanding, listening, and engagement leads to more meaningful projects that can become generational building blocks. So, if future prosperity is the end goal for both industry and Indigenous communities, the first place to start is with strong partnerships. 

Harold Reimer holds an MBA from the University of Alberta and is the Indigenous business development manager for Finning Canada.