June/July 2010

First Nations

The drawbacks of the government regulating Aboriginal and industry relationships

By J.C. Reyes

At this year’s Learning Together conference in Vancouver, one of the presenters spoke of the increasing need for junior exploration and mining companies to build and strengthen solid relationships with regional Aboriginal communities. He referenced a recent incident that took place in the Ring of Fire where exploration was halted during a blockade by the First Nation communities of Webequie and Marten Falls as a result of poorly managed relationship building, and the flow of funding to these projects was stifled. He went on to say that Bay Street is finally starting to realize the importance for companies to nurture strong Aboriginal alliances and partnerships. Another of our presenters, Learning Together director Jack Blacksmith, focused on community engagement and corporate social responsibility. In short, these topics have never been more relevant.

The sometimes inflamatory and strained relationship between industry and Aboriginal communities might prompt government intervention as they attempt to implement what they perceive to be a measured approach for relationship building. However, the impacts of this could be detrimental for both Aboriginal communities and industry. Bill C-300, for example, currently making the rounds in Parliament, has a lot of merit on the surface. However, when you stop and think about the thousands of other cases in which the relationships between communities and industry have been phenomenal, this new regulation might create unnecessary complications. Otherwise amicable relationships could be strained by giving more power to the naysayer.

The summary section of Bill C-300 states: “The purpose of this enactment is to promote environmental best practices and to ensure the protection and promotion of international human rights standards in respect of the mining, oil or gas activities of Canadian corporations in developing countries. It also gives the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Minister of International Trade the responsibility to issue guidelines that articulate corporate accountability standards for mining, oil or gas activities and it requires the Ministers to submit an annual report to both Houses of Parliament on the provisions and operation of this Act.”

Unless more is done to ensure that the all-too-frequent incidents of shattered relations occur much less frequently, everyone will be forced to live with a government-implemented relationship strategy that will limit the freedom to negotiate in good faith. And many of our companies and Aboriginal communities do not require this intervention. There are indeed many partners with limited resources that have nonetheless developed very ingenious and respectful ways to engage and become meaningful partners, despite this lack of funding.

For example, there was a small exploration company doing work with Wahgoshig First Nation that found creative ways to engage and incorporate opportunities for the community during their drilling program. They engaged their driller as a trainer and brought in young summer students as helpers to assist with the work. With a tight budget, this company was able to develop a solid relationship with the community that continues today. My fear is that once a government strategy is implemented, some communities might have very high expectations for what constitutes consultation, and accomodation examples like Wahgoshig will no longer take place.

We need to increase the support for organizations like the Canadian Aboriginal Minerals Association (CAMA) and Learning Together that are working hard to ensure that our Aboriginal communities receive ample information and assistance, including lessons learned from past mistakes and creative methods being utilized by other communities with great success. These organizations are the ideal intermediaries for industry and Aboriginal communities as we forge new bonds of cooperation on mutually beneficial terms — not those proscribed by government.

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.

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