Few acts could exemplify First Nations aspirations and the mining industry’s bona fide efforts to meet them as the invitation the Dene Nation extended to the industry recently. The mining industry was invited to participate and make presentations at the 38th Dene National Assembly held at Fort McPherson in the Northwest Territories last summer. At a special session on mining, representatives from the Mining Association of Canada, the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada and the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines addressed members of the Dene Nation.
An invitation to engage
The session was opened by Association of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine who spoke optimistically and appreciatively of the several memoranda of understanding signed in recent times between First Nations people and various sectors of the mining industry in Canada. Industry presentations were then made, providing an overview of the mining industry’s efforts and interest in improving consultation and dialogue with aboriginal groups. Celebrating what has been achieved and acknowledging what remains to be done, the speakers encouraged participants to continue engaging with industry and helping take things forward.
Emphasis was laid on the opportunities for training and employment available to aboriginal peoples in the mining industry. Representatives stressed that mining companies want to involve First Nations communities in their enterprise from the outset through consultation at the exploration stages. Respect for aboriginal peoples’ values, culture, traditional knowledge and ways of life were highlighted as central principles governing the industry’s relationship with them.
The desire for dialogue
On the whole, the presentations were well received. Members of the Dene Nation acknowledged the industry’s efforts and appreciated the developmental contributions of the industry, particularly its diamond sector, to the northern economy. The industry’s record on wildlife and environmental management was also recognized as being largely admirable. In the open question session that followed the presentations, the Dene community raised some important concerns. They reminded the industry that the lands that mining companies operated on belonged to the First Nations and therefore it was necessary to consult them well before any industrial activity occurred. Concerns were also raised on free entry, the impacts on caribou and fish, and issues surrounding revenue sharing. More aboriginal participation in the mining industry’s uppermost decision-making echelons was also sought as a prerequisite to full, meaningful participation.
The message that the industry came away with was simple and clear. The Dene and other First Nations peoples know and appreciate that individual mining companies and the industry as a whole have made significant efforts in recent times to understand, appreciate, accommodate and engage with aboriginal views and aspirations. However, this is not enough and more needs to be done. Aboriginal people want to be involved in every level of the mining industry and are deeply desirous of dialogue — so much so that many wished the industry representatives had stayed on a bit longer at the Dene National Assembly. After all, much ice remains to be broken, despite the détente that has warmed the airs in recent times.