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Indigenous Leaders: First Nation chiefs look to shape their communities' future by forging ties with industry

'We're not here for handouts anymore. We want to earn our keep,' says Fort William First Nation's Peter Collins

Mining projects in Canada are doomed to fail unless companies can forge partnership ties with Indigenous communities that are impacted by industrial development.

First Nations are more assertive in exercising their inherent treaty rights to ownership of the land and its resources. These communities now demand to be included as partners and even equity owners in projects as part of a company's social licence to operate and to help shape First Nations' aspirational economic and social goals.

"We're not here for handouts anymore. We want to earn our keep," said Peter Collins, chief of Fort William First Nation. "We're willing to do our work; give us the opportunity."

Collins was one of the speakers in an online panel discussion this week hosted by Jason Rasevych, Deloitte Canada's national leader of Indigenous client services on Indigenous relations in mining.

He was joined on the call by Reg Bellerose, chief of Muskowekwan (Sask.) First Nation, and Tony Marquis, president-COO of Canada Chrome Corp. 

Collins said First Nations are not anti-development but want to participate and be part of the process. He wants the mining industry to set up a procurement system that opens doors for First Nation entrepreneurs and small businesses to participate in the process as suppliers and part of the workforce.

Collins pointed out a stumbling block for many reserve-based contractors is the inability to obtain bonding, making it to tough to get on the job site, much less serve as a general contractor on a project. 

"We're left on the sideline."

The mining industry is no different. "It's hard to get in unless you have a massive insurance policy."

Collins said they've made good progress with the Ministry of Transportation on Indigenous procurement programs for highway contracts to open up opportunities to become bonded.

Fort William First Nation has had its share of economic development successes with its brownfield heavy industrial park where it leases land and building to Resolute Forest Products for its state-of-the-art stud mill.

In his part of northwestern Ontario Ontario, Collins encourages industry to recognize and understand the Robinson Superior Treaty, to which Fort William First Nation is a signatory.

For mining companies to achieve success in pursuing mineral extraction opportunities on First Nation traditional lands, industry needs to make an effort to visit Indigenous communities, understand the culture and tradition, and understand that treaties call for the land and its natural resources to be shared with the settlers.

Both Collins and Bellerose had issues with the regulatory and permitting processes in their respective provinces and the way provincial governments go about the duty to consult and accommodate.

"We're not like any other stakeholder. We are a rights holder of this country," said Bellerose.

The chiefs agreed that as Canada's original landholders, First Nations should be brought into the mineral exploration process as early as possible.

"What I'd like to see is companies coming to First Nations prior to permitting," said Bellerose.

The accommodation part is often forgotten by the big mining multinationals, Bellerose said, once companies obtain the government-issued permits and gain the mineral title.

He said it would be refreshing to see a mining company approach his community before contacting the provincial government of their intention to stake.

"Man, that would be music to my ears."

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Bellerose's community is a part owner of KDM Contractors, a joint venture partnership with two other First Nations and SECON Group of Companies. The company works on a number of construction sites across the province.

"Duty to consult is just another checkpoint for industry," said Collins. "Accommodation is important."

He called the current regulatory regime in Ontario an "absolute mess" for First Nations leaders, alluding to the province's online claim staking system, adopted in 2018 as part of the modernization of the Mining Act.

Once ground is staked by a prospector, exploration or mining company, the First Nation communities in the area, thought by the province to be impacted, are notified by the government. 

Exploration activity may continue on the land, Collins said, but that doesn't mean area First Nations support the project. 

"I think the province made a mistake when they did online staking," said Collins.

From a junior company's point of view, Marquis said it's been a learning experience to understand that First Nations don't always prioritize mineral exploration..

"Corporately, we're learning daily. I have to understand there are competing priorities. Water and housing is a heck of a lot more important than worrying about minerals right now, and we respect that."

Canada Chrome is a spinoff company of KWG Resources, an exploration outfit with chromite properties in the Ring of Fire. Canada Chrome's role is to study and construct a railway to the deposits in the James Bay region, hence the hiring of Marquis, a former senior executive with a combined 40 years experience with CN and CP.

To diversify its board and help with consultation, KWG brought in Fiona Blondin, a respected engagement and communications advisor, a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation in Northwest Territories

Marquis said on his "transformational journey" to learn about Treaty 9 and the Indigenous history of Canada, Blondin has provided them guidance to understand the power of building the kind of relationships that make for successful projects.

Blondin, he said, has guided him in the process of having "big ears" to listen and learn and respect First Nations.

Based on his conversations with professionals in the mining and transportation sectors, Marquis said corporate Canada "wants to do the right thing."  

Forming genuine partnerships with First Nations can be challenging because of their history associated with the hardships of colonization but, like any marriage, forming long-term relationships must be built on a "fair and respectful" foundation, and an openness and willingness to build ownership and leadership within a company. 

A part of the panel discussion revolved around the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People — known as UNDRIP — and whether that instrument has improved the ability of their First Nations in developing industry partnerships. 

Those principles are now enshrined in law both federally and in British Columbia.

Bellerose said some Western Canada chiefs question the practicality of UNDRIP, and have some unease if it's adopted through the framework of the Canadian legal system. Though it's worth it conceptually, it doesn't carry much weight at the community level, he said.

"There's so much poverty," Bellerose said. "Not one person ever told me, go and fight for UNDRIP.  

"UNDRIP doesn't matter to the average First Nation person. They're in survival mode."

Some chiefs disregard UNDRIP, he said, maintaining that their inherent rights are already guaranteed.

Collins said Fort William First Nation has made headway in gaining equity stakes on development projects by being "aggressive and persistent" on activity taking place on their territorial lands. 

"We're changing the landscape here," Collins said, pointing to the East-West transmission tie project, currently under construction along the north shore of Lake Superior. Early on, he said, First Nations were not owners and were not contractors in the powerline but pushed to get a 20 per cent ownership stake. 

For an upcoming transmission line project in northwestern Ontario, Collins said, they created a structure where First Nations will be 50 per cent owners with the power corridor cleared by First Nation constructors.

"That's without UNDRIP," Collins said. Thought he didn't dismiss it, he called UNDRIP "helpful" toward building opportunities with industry to allow First Nation communities to prosper.