Canada aboriginal movement threatens mining industry: Reuters
The grassroots aboriginal protest movement in Canada, "Idle No More" has the potential to "disrupt mining projects across Canada, threatening to undermine the country's coveted reputation for low-risk resource development," reported Julie Gordon and Allison Martell for Reuters earlier today.
Idle No More, a grass-roots movement with little centralized leadership, swept across Canada late last year with the help of social media. Protesters blocked roads and rail lines, and staged big rallies in the country's largest cities to press a sweeping human rights and economic development agenda.
Mining companies are also in the movement's sights as aboriginal bands seek to renegotiate old agreements and seize more control over mining developments, whether they are on lands designated as native reserves or not.
Earlier this month the movement cut off access to a HudBay gold-copper-zinc mine in northern Manitoba for several hours, demanding an ownership stake in the $790 million project which has begun minor production.
Canada is the world's No. 1 potash producer, No. 2 uranium producer, and home to massive reserves of a number of base and precious metals. And although conflicts with First Nations communities until now have been relatively minor, many communities live on or near land north of Canada's major cities, where rich deposits are found.
For the first time in six years, Canadian provinces failed to top the list of the best mining jurisdictions in the world in a 2012/13 survey. Companies that participated in the survey said they were concerned about land claims.
"I would say one of the big things that is weighing on mining investment in Canada right now is First Nations issues," said Ewan Downie, chief executive of Premier Gold Mines, which owns numerous projects in northern Ontario.
Current rules oblige mining companies to consult with aboriginal communities as part of the permitting process and, in many cases, agree on compensation if a development infringes on native rights. Carrots can include profit-sharing, promises of training and compensation funds designed to improve living standards and create much-needed jobs.
But Idle No More, energized by a corps of young, educated and media-savvy activists, appears much less willing to accommodate the mining industry than native leaders have been in the past.
"This movement was about educating First Nations to say no, that's not what happens when you're an owner of the resources. An owner of the resources gets resource sharing," said Pamela Palmater, a professor of politics and public administration at Ryerson University in Toronto.
First Nation opposition has already slowed or derailed at least a half dozen energy and mining projects in British Columbia, and environmentalists are increasingly partnering with aboriginal people in an effort to halt projects.
"It's the project killer, the investment killer," said Clayton Thomas-Muller, an aboriginal activist with the Indigenous Tar Sands campaign, which wants to stop further expansion of the Alberta oil sands.
It's not just new developments that are at risk as the Idle No More movement gains traction.
With isolated communities increasingly turning to social media to share information with others, even companies that already have agreements with local aboriginals could find themselves facing demands for better deals.
Compensation is a sticky issue for many communities, and aboriginal law specialist Pierre-Christian Labeau expects demands for better benefits to lead to the renegotiation of some of the older deals, perhaps to add profit-sharing clauses like those seen in more recent agreements.
"For the mining industry, maybe they should be prepared to renegotiate some elements of these agreements, because the reality shows that what we negotiated 10 years ago or five years ago doesn't work," said Labeau, chair of aboriginal law at Norton Rose in Montreal.
But there are also many examples of mutually beneficial cooperation between miners and First Nations groups in Canada that have led to economic opportunities within aboriginal communities.
At Goldcorp Inc's Musselwhite gold mine in northern Ontario, five First Nation communities have banded together to create a catering company serving the mine, along with a distribution company that delivers goods across the region.
While development of the mine has forever changed the way of life for the remote community, it has also provided jobs and business opportunities for the reserve's young people, said Frank McKay, president of Windigo Ventures General Partner.
"The community is aware that eventually the mine will close," said McKay, a member of the Sachigo Lake First Nation. "If the mine is gone, we still get the revenue from our businesses … and we have workforce that can be easily moved to other mining operations."