January 11, 2013

Leadership in Aboriginal affairs

When the PDAC’s Aboriginal Affairs committee formed in 2004, there was a growing desire within the association to enhance the natural partnership that existed between Aboriginal communities and the mineral exploration and mining industry. Yet at the time, Aboriginal participation at the PDAC Convention was not very high and there were no Aboriginal executives on the PDAC’s board of directors.

Leadership In Aboriginal Affairs

How times have changed. Today, the PDAC has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in place with the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) to promote greater participation by First Nations in the mineral industry in Canada, and more than 500 self-identified Aboriginal delegates attended the PDAC Convention in 2014. 

“I’m always amazed about where we’ve come in the last decade as an industry,” says Glenn Nolan, who hails from the Missanabie Cree First Nation in northern Ontario and was the PDAC's 35th President (2012-2013) in addition to working as Vice-President of Aboriginal Affairs for Noront Resources. “The growth in awareness by industry members about what needs to be done to engage communities in a proactive and respectful way is encouraging.”

It was former President Peter Dimmell who first recognized in 2004 that the PDAC needed to take a greater leadership role in fostering a positive relationship with Aboriginal communities. The B.C. Supreme Court had just ruled on the “duty to consult” and issues were arising between some junior companies and Aboriginal communities in Ontario.

“The Platinex-Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) dispute was not in the news yet, but there were a couple of other less high profile situations where companies and communities were starting to clash around the duty to consult,” says Don Bubar, who sat on the PDAC Board of Directors from 2004 to 2012 and has worked with Aboriginal groups in the Northwest Territories and in northwestern Ontario. “Peter approached me to chair the new PDAC Aboriginal Affairs committee because I had spoken up on Aboriginal issues during a couple of board meetings and was one of the few on the board at the time who had relevant experience working with communities.”

Bubar immediately turned to Chuck Willms, a lawyer specializing in Aboriginal law at Fasken Martineau, to join the committee and speak at a PDAC event on the implications of the Supreme Court decision on the duty to consult. Nolan attended the event as a representative of his own community and introduced himself to Bubar, who recognized in Nolan a valuable potential committee and PDAC board member.

When elected at the AGM in March 2005, Nolan was the only Aboriginal person on the PDAC board of directors at the time. He was followed by Jack Blacksmith, Michael Fox and Annita McPhee. Fox and McPhee still serve on the board with Nolan, who became President in 2012.

“My role as the President is being seen as a game-changer,” says Nolan. “Aboriginal people are now looking at the association as a way of embracing something that, in the past, they might not have considered.”

Both Nolan and Bubar identify the PDAC’s MOU with the Assembly of First Nations as the committee’s most significant accomplishment. Signed in 2008, the agreement establishes a relationship between the two organizations with a commitment to opportunities for regular dialogue between the mineral sector and communities, collaboration on human resource initiatives that promote greater participation of First Nations people in Canada’s exploration and mining industry, and cooperation on public policy issues of mutual interest.

As of February 2012, more than 180 agreements have been signed between mining companies and Aboriginal communities or governments in Canada, according to Natural Resources Canada. Projects range from grassroots exploration plays to producing mines across the country.

Another significant milestone was the PDAC’s establishment of the Skookum Jim Award. First presented in March 2008, the award recognizes exceptional achievement and/or service from an Aboriginal-run business, or an individual who has made a significant contribution to the industry. The 2014 winner is Jim MacLeod, President of J.A. MacLeod Exploration and EnviroCree Ltd., for his strong leadership on the environmental impact of the mining sector and his work advocating for more education and training programs for Aboriginal youth within the industry

“Having the board recognize the importance of Aboriginal entrepreneurs and movers and shakers that have exemplified a strong commitment to the industry was significant,” says Nolan.

Since the Aboriginal Program was launched at the PDAC Convention in 2006, it has grown exponentially in quality and quantity. With two days of sessions (increased from one half-day session at its inception) devoted to Aboriginal programming, the convention is a unique opportunity for companies and communities to network, create partnerships, and share knowledge.

Aboriginal participation at the convention is expected to continue to grow in the upcoming years, says Lesley Williams, the PDAC’s Manager of Aboriginal Affairs and Resource Development. Programming in four separate sessions will focus on building capacity, promoting excellence in engagement, and addressing subjects such as consultation and community-company agreements. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the year the PDAC will continue to develop tools to build awareness around the mineral development sequence and opportunities that exist, and encourage increased and meaningful Aboriginal participation in the industry, adds Williams.

Apart from the Aboriginal Program at the convention, PDAC Aboriginal Affairs undertakes initiatives and activities to promote greater understanding and cooperation between Aboriginal communities and the mineral industry in Canada. While advocating for policy, such as government resource revenue sharing and the resolution of land claims, the PDAC participates in conferences and meetings central to Aboriginal issues in Canada. The development of research and tools such as the Exploration and Mining Guide for Aboriginal Communities is also an integral element of the department.

The opportunity for constructive engagement and Aboriginal participation in the sector is not lost on government representatives at the provincial and federal level. “We talk a lot in public policy about jobs without people and people without jobs and I think that is the key to this obvious marriage of Aboriginal people, particularly their youth, and the mining industry,” says Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett, who attended PDAC 2102 and is Vice-Chair of the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development committee at the federal level.

Nolan agrees with such a sentiment and envisions a future in which communities take ownership of exploration programs, hire their own people, and secure licences to develop projects. When such a vision becomes a reality, the PDAC Aboriginal Affairs committee will have fulfilled its mandate.

- By Virginia Heffernan