Aboriginal Affairs Unit up and running
The Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines’ (MNDM) new Aboriginal Affairs Unit, established last summer, is gearing up to help mining companies and First Nations come to terms on mineral development activities on traditional lands.
Bernie Hughes, the director of the Unit, points to the Ontario government’s Ipperwash Inquiry, the reconciliation efforts related to the residential schools and recent Supreme Court rulings on the duty to consult First Nations as contributing to the government’s heightened interest in Aboriginal relations.
The focus on consultations is new to everybody, said Hughes, who assumed the role of director of MNDM’s Aboriginal Affairs Unit in July. “It’s new to government, industry and the First Nations, but everybody agrees that it has to happen, so the unit is here to make sure that government consults, that First Nations and industry consult with each other and that, when there are difficulties, the government helps negotiate, mediate or broker our way through that situation.”
The unit will also provide educational outreach to First Nations that are interested in knowing more about how the mining industry works.
According to Hughes, who served as director of policy and planning for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada in the Northwest Territories prior to joining MNDM, industry representatives often complain that they don’t always know who to talk to, while First Nation leaders say they don’t always know about mineral development activities on their traditional lands.
“It’s a very relevant issue in the mining sector and it’s difficult to deal with at times because it’s not always evident who companies have to talk to. There are 140 First Nations in Ontario. In some cases, their traditional lands butt up against each other and, in many cases, they overlap.”
To solve the problem, MNDM is developing a map that identifies traditional territories, “so when there’s a project in any given area of Ontario, it will tell us who the company has to talk to,” said Hughes.
Last year, the Ministry began notifying First Nations every three months about claims that have been staked and recorded on their traditional lands.
“We do a similar thing with the company that staked the claims,” said Hughes. “We tell them the following First Nations might be interested in hearing from you. You might want to talk to them about your project once you get it going and you’re contemplating work on the site.”
While MNDM strives to introduce mining companies and First Nations to each other, it shies away from telling them how to talk to each other or what to discuss – at least for now. Mining companies looking for advice about best practices are better off consulting with industry associations, said Hughes.
Any agreements negotiated are between mining companies and First Nations, he added.
“There’s nothing to say that there has to be an agreement and there’s nothing to say that the government needs to know about any agreement. In many cases, First Nations and industry don’t want government to be part of that discussion.”
In consultations on reforms to the province’s mining legislation scheduled to be introduced in May, First Nations and industry were at odds over including a requirement to negotiate an impact benefit agreement.
“The First Nations want to see IBAs regulated and, generally speaking, industry wants to keep IBAs out of the Act, so there’s a difference of opinion there and we will have to weigh both sets of interests to see which way we go,” said Hughes. “The First Nations want the certainty that there will be something. They’re not looking for a formula. They can work that out themselves.”
First Nation opinions about mining development on traditional lands range from enthusiasm to outright hostility.
“There’s a solid core of First Nations that have good experience with mineral development and are interested in furthering that because they see it as an avenue to economic development,” observed Hughes. “There are a lot of First Nations that don’t know enough about it and it may be a bit scary for them, but they’re willing to learn. Then there are First Nations out there that haven’t had positive experiences and don’t want anything to do with it.”
The Aboriginal Affairs Unit has staff based in Sudbury, Timmins, Thunder Bay and Toronto.
Tagged Aboriginal Affairs Unit, benefit agreement, Bernie Hughes, Canada, consultation, First Nations, Greater Sudbury, Ipperwash Inquiry, legislation, MNDM, Northern Ontario, Northern Ontario Business, Ontario, Ontario government, Ontario Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, Sudbury, Supreme Court