August 2010

First Nations

Turning over a new golden leaf

By J. C. Reyes

Let’s face it: You would probably have to be living in a cave to miss the fact that right now, gold is the hottest commodity on the market. Hovering at about $1,250 an ounce, this precious mineral is also one of today’s most promising investments. Many mining and exploration companies in the gold sector are bringing in earnings well above average, and there does not seem to be any slowdown in sight. The state of gold right now has a huge potential for Aboriginal communities.

Most new, and many existing gold ventures are located in Aboriginal territories in Canada and around the world. This reality has not escaped today’s gold industry, and many company public relations divisions have put in a lot of extra hours over the past few years trying to sanitize their public images with local and global indigenous communities. Leading the charge in this recent “cleansing” have been relatively new and emerging companies.

However, when it comes to effective community engagement and Aboriginal employment commitments, there are few better examples than Detour Gold Corporation. Detour Gold recognized very early that a proactive approach to Aboriginal engagement was needed in order to purge the negative image that has plagued many gold companies globally. Utilizing a bevy of corporate policies and grassroots initiatives, Detour Gold has worked hard to address the concerns of communities that have traditional territory in areas of proposed development. There were some real challenges going forward, though. One issue was the fact that the communities they were dealing with had traditional territories that overlapped in the region where the development was proposed.

About three years ago, I met with Gerald Penneton, the CEO of Detour Gold. He told me about his visits to the three communities that were going to be most impacted by development and about meeting their leaders face to face to present the company’s position. To Penneton, this was something that made common sense and — good business practice. Today, though, this sort of thinking is rare. It just so happens that one of Learning Together’s strong community partners was one of the stops on Penneton’s  outreach tour. They told me that their experience and discussions with Detour had been extremely positive.

Another player working hard to engage communities and improve corporate relationships with neighbouring Aboriginal partners is Goldcorp. For years, the Timmins area adjacent to the Porcupine fault has been a rich source of gold. Timmins itself was built largely because of these gold deposits. At the time, however, the Aboriginal communities in the region did not possess the same sort of rights they have now — and so they were overlooked.

Fast-forward to today and the picture is more than a little different. To help close any existing gaps that might exist between Goldcorp’s Porcupine operations and the surrounding indigenous communities, the company has recently hired an Aboriginal affairs manager. Mary Boyden, an Aboriginal leader in the industry, is well known and respected by her peers both in the Aboriginal world and in the mining industry. Her previous job as mining initiatives development officer for Wahgoshig First Nation has offered her plenty of firsthand experience about what needs to be done to help these communities build solutions that work. She has a deep understanding of the issues facing communities in the region, and her role is to help facilitate the relationships between these communities and Goldcorp. This is a role she is taking very seriously because it is so important. Her goal is to build relationships through collaboration by getting to know the communities and their issues, and then to help develop common goals that can be achieved. One project in particular that Boyden would like to put in motion is an employment generator and skills development process for these communities.

If there is one thing to learn from the successes of Detour and Goldcorp, it is that to be successful in negotiating, you have to take into account all the communities involved in the project, not just the most proactive ones. In many cases, communities will overlap, depending on the proximity of the projects. These are just two examples from the many that I know that are quickly percolating within industry.

The picture has been clear for some time now: gold’s value will likely continue to rise, and with it the need for more money to invest in new deposits. This is one of the reasons it is vitally important that new and existing gold mining companies clean up their act and begin building serious relationships with Aboriginal communities, right from the beginning. 

Juan Carlos Reyes is one of the founders of Learning Together and has been its executive director since 2008. He has nearly 15 years of mining and Aboriginal development expertise, and has worked tirelessly to promote economic development opportunities in the mining industry for Aboriginal communities.

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