Can’t do business with the locals – then don’t do business

Imagine the regulatory side of mining as a two-cogged mechanism. One of these cogged gears represents the mining industry, the other the government. These two gears have been turning together for a long time. Now add a third cog representing the First Nations communities, and the machine’s going to slow down or jam.

This is the analogy that Michael Anderson, natural resources researcher, uses to explain the current state of the $3 billion industry in Manitoba.

Despite the fact that there has been large-scale mining in the province since 1914, Anderson says First Nations’ interests are second at best and “the province didn’t really believe that it had a duty to consult for a long time.”

As a result Anderson says that smelters at Flin Flon and Thompson have resulted in the widespread dispersal of lead, arsenic and cadmium. He claims that this has resulted in the organ meat of game animals – a primary source of food for First Nations – becoming toxic.

There are signs that the landscape is changing. In June 2009 the provincial government signed an accord with the Northlands First Nation after the latter threatened legal proceedings over the unlawful issuance of mining permits without consultation. A protocol was also drawn up outlining how the community would be consulted in future matters.

But Anderson says this protocol only applies to the Northlands First Nation. He says that the government is concerned about setting a precedent for other First Nations.

“As a result, it’s causing all kinds of friction in the industry,” says Anderson. “There’s a lot of grumpy explorationists and First Nations that are on the verge of litigating.”

He admits to a decrease in the issuance of permits. But he says there’s a disturbing pattern emerging: the government promises to consult; the explorationists meanwhile push to get their permits; the government then pressures the First Nation to conclude an incomplete consultation, and meanwhile the government issues the permit anyway.

But Manitoba is in a middle-place right now.

One mining company, San Gold, has earned praise for keeping a dialogue open with local First Nations communities. They have a dedicated First Nations consultant on their staff that mediates between the two entities. San Gold hires 40% of its work force locally, and they regularly provide readings from their tailings ponds to the communities.

Tim Friesen, communications director at San Gold, says “companies should benefit local communities – there’s a mutual benefit by aligning our needs.”

Other companies like Victory seem to be following suit, having signed a memorandum of understanding with three First Nations communities. HudBay Minerals, along with the government, is involved with the creation of the new Northern Manitoba Mining Academy based in Flin Flon. The Academy will provide Manitoba residents, many of who are First Nations, with access to mining-related training with the aim of creating a skilled and sustainable workforce. But why is such an academy being opened now after 100 years of large-scale mining?

Anderson acknowledges that the tide is turning in the province, but that the government and companies need to take the next step. The First Nations people need to be regularly consulted. There are seasonal impacts to mining that many companies are unaware of. Drilling can scare birds and so affect egg-harvesting, or disrupt the migration patterns of caribou.

“If you don’t do business with the locals, don’t do business,” says Anderson.