Miners and First Nations from northwestern Ontario helped lead a discussion at a major mining conference this week about First Nations' consent in mining projects.
The chiefs of Long Lake #58 and Animbiigoo Zaagi'igan Anishinaabek joined representatives of Greenstone Gold Mines on a panel at the annual Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) conference. It began Monday and wraps up today (Wednesday) in Toronto, to be followed by an online component at the end of the month.
Monday's panel focused on Canada's initiative to bring its laws in line with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which calls for governments to seek the free, prior and informed consent of First Nations for development affecting their lands.
The federal government passed legislation on June 21, 2021, to adopt the principles of the UNDRIP in Canadian law; the country is now one year into a two-year process of developing a follow-through plan.
But the relationship between Greenstone and Animbiigoo Zaagi'igan Anishinaabek already operates under the principles of the UNDRIP, Chief Theresa Nelson told CBC from the conference in Toronto.
'It's like a family really'
"I'm really proud of being part of the group," Nelson said of her relationship with the company. "It's like a family really. … I appreciate that, you know, if there's something going wrong, I'm not afraid to say, 'Hey, you know, you did this,' or 'Something happened here.' They address it right away."
The First Nation has been working with Greenstone since the mid 2000s, Nelson said, and there were growing pains in the early years, in part because the community itself wasn't organized.
But as time went on, Nelson found the company responsive to its concerns.
"They knew that we needed something to draw our community back to the area," she said.
"They knew that we have a green community to build and we'd have to create a lot of employment. We'd have to generate some revenue to start building. We'd have to start businesses. … and with every problem that we had, where we came up to a stalemate … they paid for an expert to overcome that hurdle."
'An inclusive vision'
Greenstone was supportive even at times when it wasn't in the company's interest, Nelson said.
"One of the communities had a cultural site in one of their mining claims. Actually, it was a pretty significant claim," she said. "They took it right off the table."
Greenstone operates with an "inclusive vision," said Daniel Gagne, its senior manager for Indigenous relations, who confirmed the company has refrained from exploring a sacred area at the request of one of the communities with which it has an agreement.
The company's agreements with First Nations, signed between 2018 and 2019, include provisions related to royalties, training, procurement, business opportunities and employment, he said.
"We're in full construction now, so we're implementing those agreements. And I think the key is really, really, really the relationship now. …. And to be able to go above and beyond."
Industry leading the way
The fact the chiefs of First Nations with which the company works spoke positively during the PDAC panel about their relationship reflects the success of Greenstone's efforts, he added.
Nelson spoke to conference-goers about the economic development aspect of the relationship, she said.
"I had recently gone on a site tour, actually just last week, and the community relations worker pointed out that almost every vehicle and every machine was a First Nations or Métis partnership," she said.
"I mean, there's up to 80 per cent First Nations involvement in that project, which is pretty astounding. I'm very proud of how we've done this, and I'm very proud of Greenstone."
The relationship between companies like Greenstone and its partner First Nations demonstrates how industry is leading the way in implementing UNDRIP, said Sandra Gogol, a partner with the Toronto-based law firm Cassels, which advises industry on working with First Nations.
"While the federal government and provincial governments start developing their action plan on how to implement the objectives, industry is on the ground living it," she said.