In the summer of 2004, a group of aboriginal leaders began exploring opportunities in the mining and exploration industry that were available to northern Ontario aboriginal communities. After months of researching the issue, it became apparent that this was not an easy task. Most existing negotiations between industry and aboriginal communities are, for the most part, very secretive documents bound by confidentiality agreements. Furthermore, one thing was very apparent: aboriginal communities were not participating in mining and exploration activities to their full potential, and the potential that this participation could have to economic and employment development efforts in the communities was not being realized.
At around the same time, the Supreme Court of Canada was delivering its final judgment on the now famous court case between the Haida and Taku Nations and the government of British Columbia. The case dealt with aboriginal treaty right and title of land. The province granted permits to industry without consulting the communities, who argued that the land in question was theirs. The province asked that the communities provide proof of this. The case was taken to the B.C. Provincial Supreme Court and finally appealed by the B.C. government federaly; in both instances, the courts agreed with the communities.
The Federal Supreme Court went a step further. It clarified when the need to “consult and accommodate” arises, and also clarified that the responsibility to consult lies solely with the Crown. The Supreme Court announced that the need to consult and accommodate arises whenever the Crown has knowledge, real or constructive, of the potential existence of the aboriginal right or title and contemplates conduct that might adversely affect it.
These decisions pinpointed the importance for industry to increase awareness and knowledge about aboriginal communities and the need to engage and collaborate to improve relationships.
In 2005 these aboriginal leaders decided that something needed to be done. They wanted to create an information-sharing mechanism that would allow communities interested in mining to become informed and receive all the facts about the industry from those communities involved first-hand. At the same time, it was decided that there was a need to improve the knowledge that the industry had about aboriginal communities, treaties, rights and methods for doing business.
Learning Together was created for this purpose. The first task carried out was to organize a conference that would bring together the communities and industry to hear from aboriginal participants in the mining industry about their successes, challenges and failures in order to improve knowledge and communication between the communities and industry.
The first annual Learning Together conference was hosted in Sudbury, Ontario, in 2006 with participation from over 30 aboriginal communities from Ontario and Quebec, as well as a significant number of industry and government representatives. The conference was a great success and proved to be an excellent mechanism to help break myths and increase knowledge. In 2007 the conference was held in Timmins, Ontario. The recent 2008 conference was hosted in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and saw an increase in participation from across the country, with over 50 First Nations represented and close to 200 registered delegates.
The next step for Learning Together is to grow and work closely with partners like CIM and PDAC, and through mutual collaboration become the go-to place for aboriginal communities and industry that wish to increase awareness, dialogue and information-sharing about mining in aboriginal territories.
Juan Carlos Reyes is an Aboriginal consultant with efficiency.ca and the executive director of Learning Together. He is passionate about human rights and works tirelessly to help improve the lives of Canadian Aboriginal people.