May 2011

Aboriginal Perspectives

A giant step in the agreement process: Cree Nation sets the tone for future collaborations with mining industry

By Jeff Borsato

The Opinagow Collaboration Agreement will ensure mutual development and cooperation throughout the life of the Éléonore gold mine. From L to R: Grand Chief Coon Come, Chief Rodney Mark and Steve Reid | Photo courtesy of Goldcorp Corporation

Mineral exploration and development in Canada typically occur in close proximity to Aboriginal communities. The positive impact such activities have on these communities are significant on many levels – agreements with First Nations on mining-related projects can result in job creation, skills training and economic growth at both the local and regional level. If approached in a proactive, respectful and responsible way, companies can tip the balance in favour of a harmonious and profitable partnership. Moreover, when a First Nation is proactive in its negotiations, it is not only a recipe for success, it is a model to be emulated.

Historically, impact benefit agreements (IBAs) existed as bilateral agreements between the government and an Aboriginal community, to ensure local rights are respected and that employment opportunities are created for the people in the community. But, times are changing. Aboriginal communities are becoming increasingly involved in agreement negotiations. A prime example of this is the recent collaboration agreement struck between the Cree First Nation in Quebec and one of Canada’s leading gold producers.

A step in the right direction

Last February, a milestone was reached in the negotiation process between First Nations and mining companies. The Cree Nation of Wemindji took charge of its fate, retained the services of a large Montreal-based legal firm and placed itself at the forefront of each step of negotiations with Goldcorp regarding the development and operation of its Éléonore gold property in northern Quebec.

Under the terms of the Opinagow Collaboration Agreement, Goldcorp will recognize and respect Cree rights and interests in the area in and around the Éléonore property. For its part, the Cree Nation will recognize Goldcorp’s rights and interests in the property, forging an agreement to ensure mutual development and cooperation throughout the life of the mine. This collaborative relationship between Goldcorp and the Cree Nation ensures continued respect for Cree traditional activities while promoting its economic and social development.

“It’s about vision: creating something that serves our need to grow and prosper while honouring our traditional way of life,” says Chief Rodney Mark of the Cree Nation of Wemindji. “Self-reliance is so important to the Cree. A critical element of the agreement is the cooperation of the 10 communities around Wemindji towards building a viable economy and increasing self-determination.” This collaboration is just one part of a growing trend towards greater Aboriginal involvement in development negotiations.

Federal policies dictate that companies must engage both the government and Aboriginal representatives early in the process. This sentiment is echoed by Steve Reid, Goldcorp’s executive vice-president and COO. “At the core of this agreement are community partnerships that will ensure a responsible and viable minesite for many years to come,” he says. “Sustainable prosperity is critical, which is why we engaged the Cree from the earliest stages of exploration, ensuring that they were active participants and not passive partners in the entire process,” he adds, outlining the company’s approach.

Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come of the Grand Council of the Crees confirms the significance of the signing. “This marks an important step forward for the Cree Nation,” he says. “It ensures economic development that we can be an active partner in. The Opinagow Collaboration Agreement is evidence that the Cree aren’t anti-development; it shows that we seek out development provided our rights, the environment and our way of life are respected.”

Looking at the long term

Chief Coon Come highlights the common vision that the Cree and the mining community share. “The spirit and intent of cooperation agreements build upon existing agreements and can act as a template to other First Nations that are considering allowing mineral exploration and development on their land,” he says.

His advice to the other 614 First Nation communities that may find themselves in similar situations: “Any agreement must address education, cultural sensitivity, business opportunities and ensure traditional ways of life are protected.” Chief Mark stresses the importance of engaging the younger generation by providing student internships and summer programs, for example, and by explaining to them the range of opportunities that mineral development can bring to the region. “The younger generations need to see that there are job opportunities in the community, not just in mining but in the private sector as a whole as it develops,” he adds.

A critical outcome of this agreement will be to ensure development takes place beyond the minesite, where residents can foster greater economic ties and ensure future success for First Nation communities. Following exploration activity, an airstrip and a 63-kilometre power line with a telecommunications tower were constructed, and a 61-kilometre access road is planned.

With an estimated mine life of 16 years, the Éléonore property is considered a major new gold discovery in northern Quebec. The signing of the Opinagow Collaboration Agreement will not only help ensure sustainable development in Wemindji, the landmark negotiations will help guide future Aboriginal initiatives towards greater prosperity through responsible natural resource development.

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