Major mines increasingly tapping Canadian indigenous labour force

In recent years, two major copper mine proposals in B.C. – New Prosperity and Ajax – have been rejected by government, either largely or partly due to First Nations opposition.

What gets less publicity are mines that have been built with the support and co-operation of First Nations – Red Chris and Brucejack being among the most recent examples.

At last week’s Association for Mineral Exploration (AME) annual Roundup conference, Kim Rudd, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Natural Resources Canada, pointed out that mining is the largest employer of First Nations in Canada, employing 11,000 Indigenous people.

There are some 400 agreements between mining companies and First Nations across Canada, she said.

One theme at last week’s Roundup was the role resource industries like mining can play in reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Concern has been raised over the new NDP government’s adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The fear is that an UNDRIP clause that requires “free, prior and informed consent” from First Nations on development amounts to a veto. Scott Fraser, minister of Indigenous relations and reconciliation, says it doesn’t.

“The suggestion that the United Nations declaration is reducible to a veto on development is not accurate and in some cases is disingenuous,” Fraser said during a government and industry panel discussion.

What it does do, however, is require proper consultation and engagement from government. And as Fraser noted, some of the more successful mine developers in B.C. have already figured out that the key to success in B.C. is consulting early and earnestly with First Nations.

“In some cases, industry is well ahead of us,” Fraser said. “Involving First Nations from the beginning in a project, it’s not just the role of industry; it’s also the role of government.

“The idea that we can just say we consulted and we ticked that box, while in some estimation that might be some bare legal requirement, that’s not the route to success.”

Well before the UNDRIP was adopted in B.C., Teck Resources (TSX:TECK.B) was moving in a direction consistent with the declaration’s underlying principles. In 2015, it formalized its Indigenous Peoples policy and has been working with Reconciliation Canada on a company reconciliation action plan.

As some companies have learned, consulting and partnering with First Nations isn’t just a way to get social licence – it can also provide real solutions to labour challenges.

Rick Rule, president of Sprott U.S. Holdings Inc., is an American resource investor who is very familiar with B.C. and its companies. He said First Nations like the Tahltan have worked with resource companies to develop their own professional capacity and a skilled workforce.

“First Nations didn’t have the ability to tell if the representatives of the industry that they were talking to were telling the truth,” Rule said. “Now, when you go and talk to the Tahltan, there are Tahltan accountants, there are Tahltan lawyers, there are Tahltan geologists.”

Rule pointed to Pretium Resources Inc. (TSX:PVG) as an example of a company that is addressing labour issues by developing a workforce that includes many First Nations workers and contractors.

“We’re going to face a critical employment and skill shortage in B.C.,” Rule said. “Bob Quartermain, with Pretium, has proven that, with concerted effort, a native labour force – even one that hasn’t been induced to formal employment in the past – becomes a superior labour force over time, because they’re not fly-in, fly-out.

“The relationship between the mining industry and the First Nations will continue to be problematic for three or four years, while we get to know each other as equals. But the truth is, being regulated locally, rather than being regulated provincially or regulated federally, is the best possible circumstance.”

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