Killing the golden goose

We’ve all played the game Risk as kids. We all know that a successful campaign of strategizing, negotiating and battling starts with capturing Australia. Yet in playing this game of conquest, scant attention is paid to how these running skirmishes might impact the indigenous peoples.

Now imagine a map of Canada as the sole country on that battleground. Replace the plastic cavalry pieces with plastic imitations of mining company logos. Then you’d have a sense of the ongoing battles between First Nations communities and mining companies in the majority of our nation’s provinces and territories. Historically these companies have vied for mineral deposits on aboriginal land with little to no consultation, encroached on ancient burial sites, polluted rivers and scared off traditional food sources like caribou in the process.

Even remote regions like northern Baffin Island are no longer safe. The iron ore mine at Mary River, roughly 1,000 kilometres northwest of Iqaluit has been made possible due to soaring mineral prices and increased accessibility for ships as a result of global warming. The project will certainly impact the region’s Inuit and biodiversity in this new mining frontier.

Nak’azdli band councillor Anne Marie Sam in British Columbia says First Nations communities aren’t against mining development of any kind, just against mining development at any price.

“I was raised on the land of my grandparents and they always told me that our identity, who we are, comes from the land,” says Sam. “Whereas I had the identity of a clean river system, areas where we could pick medicinal plants, and hunt, my 5 year old daughter is going to inherit a 300m deep open pit and a 3 kilometre long tailings pond.”

The Mt. Milligan mine in British Columbia is just one example of where companies like Thompson Creek Metals have gone ahead with development without gaining the consent of all the affected First Nations communities. There are similar cases in Nunavut, Manitoba, Ontario, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Larry Innes, executive director of the Canadian Boreal Initiative, says that mining operators are able to operate under a system of acquiring mineral rights that’s older than the telephone. He says that the free entry system is the root cause of many of these conflicts.

“There are lots of examples of the old school approach where companies ride in on the strength of these old free entry rights and entitlements that existed 100 years ago, and are really part of the frontier mentality,” Innes says. “Prospectors can now even go online today and stake a claim with just a few mouse clicks.”

Provinces like Ontario have sought to address these anachronistic protocols through a series of reforms to its Mining Act – but these changes have yet to be applied in full.

“Mining is a significant industry for Ontario – they obviously don’t want to kill the golden goose,” says Innes.

However, companies like British Columbia’s NovaGold and Manitoba’s San Gold opened early and consistent dialogues with First Nations communities, and providing employment opportunities.

But while there is hope, more progressive regions like the Northwest Territories illustrate that future challenges remain. Consultant Stephen Ellis, who has worked with the Lutsel K’e Dene, says the influx of capital has seen the advent of hard drugs in the province. He says the companies are partially to blame, as they don’t advise First Nations workers how to invest their newfound wealth.

“Many companies dump money into these communities and think they have a social licence to proceed,” says Ellis. “They wash their hands of any problems and walk away.”

Innes says that we are starting to see the beginnings of change, at least with the more progressive companies making the necessary changes well before the government catches up.

“We can look at the example of the Northwest Territories and see that there’s a better way to go about this,” says Innes. “But what most provinces lack is the political will to take those lessons and apply them.”

“Lessons have been learnt, but it seems we have to keep learning them.”

This article kicks off a four part focus on how mining has impacted First Nations communities across Canada.