March/April 2009

First Nations

Cultural awareness and Aboriginal mining relationships

By J. C. Reyes

I have a group of friends, also consultants and business owners, and we often talk about our international experiences. A topic that usually comes up is how my ability to speak Spanish has been such a great asset in doing business in South America, and about how many contracts my friends have missed out on because they didn’t know a language well enough. But I’ve been thinking about this a bit more lately and I’ve begun to wonder if the reason they haven’t sealed the deal on these contracts is because they don’t speak the language, or because they lack the needed cultural awareness?

This question poses a bit of a conundrum. If you’re not aware of the subtle cultural differences that exist within a certain community, how can you possibly know whether or not you’ve lost a contract because of this lack of understanding? It would be easier to blame a lost contract on market conditions, price issues or not meeting the specification — when in fact the underlying cause may have been a cultural blunder. I have first-hand experience in these matters because, although I am from El Salvador and speak Spanish, doing business in other Spanish-speaking countries has been difficult because of my lack of specific cultural understandings. I bring this up because it is important for you to understand that perhaps the reason your negotiations with a community didn’t go well is because you lacked the requisite cultural awareness.

It is important to understand that the umbrella term “Canadian Aboriginal Peoples” is bandied about often and can be very misleading — not to mention that the term itself can be further broken down into First Nations, Inuit and Métis. And within these separate entities a world of complex, independent, semi-autonomous government bodies exists. As you can imagine, it can all get very confusing.

I did a quick search through my favourite encyclopedia (Wikipedia) for the term First Nations and found this definition: “First Nations is a term of ethnicity that refers to the Aboriginal Peoples in Canada who are neither Inuit nor Métis people.” The term is actually legally undefined. It came into common usage in the 1980s to replace the term “Indian Band,” the legally recognized term defined as “a body of Indians for whose collective use and benefit lands have been set apart or money is held by the Canadian Crown, or declared to be a band for the purposes of the Indian Act.”

In Canada there are 65 Indian tribes. Tribes are groups of people that have common practices, language and beliefs. They are then further divided into Indian Bands or First Nations. Currently, over 600 recognized First Nations governments or bands exist in Canada, roughly half of which are in the provinces of Ontario and British Columbia.

So as you can see, it’s not as simple as “Aboriginal People” any more. Although some tribes have left very small footprints in Canada, they nonetheless have tremendous histories and unique distinctions. Often these differences lead to social incompatibilities. In addition, many tribes also have very distinct ways of dealing with other tribes, with other communities, and even how they choose leaders. One of the more inspiring traditions for choosing leadership can be found within the Mohawks, a matriarchal society. They rely on their clan mothers to choose the leader for the community — a very effective method that is certainly ahead of its time. It undoubtedly beats the politics-driven methodology most places in Canada use today.

In the next few articles, I hope to paint a small picture that will illustrate and introduce the sheer complexity that exists among Canadian Aboriginal Peoples, how it defines the decision-making and negotiation process. This is why no two agreements are ever exactly the same, and why it is sometimes easier to negotiate with one community over another. Understanding that each community, tribe and individual is unique will go a long way in bringing the industry closer to that critical cultural awareness.

Juan Carlos Reyes is an Aboriginal consultant with 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.

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