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Victor Mine a game changer for Far North

December 1, 2009
by Norm Tollinsky
In: News with 0 Comments

Developing a trusting relationship with a First Nation community “is a lot like relationship building in your own life,” says Jonathan Fowler, vice-president of Aboriginal affairs and sustainability for De Beers Canada.

“You start off getting to know someone, you go on to courting, then a formal engagement. You get to the marriage and you hope that it’s happily ever after. The reality today is that sometimes things don’t work out and you have a divorce, so you need an exit strategy as well. The same things apply when building a relationship with an Aboriginal community.

“You build trust,” he said, “through a continuity of messages and through a continuity of messengers as well because it’s not only what you’re saying. It’s how and who is saying it.”

Fowler should know. A De Beers veteran with a PhD in Geology, he headed up exploration for the company in the James Bay Lowlands beginning in the mid-80s when contacts with the First Nations in the region were limited to informal exchanges with hunters and trappers.

The company formally engaged the Attawapiskat First Nation in the late ’90s when a decision was made to return to Victor for more intensive exploration. A memorandum of understanding covering communication, liaison with the community, the environment, business opportunities and training was signed in 1999. De Beers then began negotiating an impact benefit agreement (IBA) in 2002 when a mine appeared likely. Three and a half years later, on Nov. 5, 2005, the IBA was ratified by 85.5 per cent of the Attawapiskat First Nation.

Construction began the same year and full production was achieved in July 2008 – nine months ahead of schedule.

In the negotiating process, “you have to sit down and exchange information about what you want to talk about,” said Fowler. “You have a discussion about how you want to conduct that process and how they want to be engaged. You get a list of their issues and concerns and respond to them.”


You begin with an information exchange and progress from there to “consultation, collaboration and, eventually, to empowerment, where they are part of the solution.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“One of the difficulties we found was that there aren’t a lot of technical words and terms in the Cree language for many of the things you do in mining,” said Fowler. “For example, there was no word for diamonds, so we had to have workshops with the interpreters and elders to develop language or terminology to convey consistently what we wanted to talk about.”

Most of the community speaks English, but their mother tongue is Cree, so public meetings were all translated.

It’s important to get to know members of the community away from the negotiating table, said Fowler.

“You can’t walk into a meeting, say hello, do your business, say goodbye and walk out. That’s not building a relationship. That’s rather cold and frosty. You need to sit down, have a coffee, get to know the other person and let them get to know you.

“They’re a bit wary of outsiders, particularly from industry. Most of the communities have been adversely affected in various dealings with outsiders over the years. There’s a legacy of broken promises. That’s why you have to build a relationship by saying what you’ll do and doing what you say, so they understand that you’re a reliable person or company that they can do business with.”

During the exploration phase of the project, opportunities for employment were limited, but as the project advanced, more and more members of the Attawapiskat First Nation were employed.


“We went from a half dozen people to employing 25, 50, 60,” recalled Fowler. “When we got into construction, that number ballooned. We had 587 positions filled by people from Attawapiskat.”

De Beers and its major contractors employed an average of between 100 and 115 people from Attawapiskat during the first year of operations, easily exceeding the target of 90 in the IBA.

“Now, we’re looking at what is an appropriate milestone for future years because the way the IBA is set up, we periodically sit down and review the targets,”

Training was an important priority. The company contributed $800,000 toward the construction of a training centre in 2004 and subsequently spent $1 million adding a training facility with computer labs and heavy equipment simulators at the community’s high school.

“Everyone on site has gone through common core training and others have done more specialized training related to their actual jobs,” said Fowler.  “We have also had good results from a plant operator training program. We’ve had three intakes of people and almost everyone who successfully completed the course was placed in a job in the process plant.”

In requests for tenders, bidders were asked what they would do to train
and employ people from the local communities and were awarded points for complying. Contractors were also encouraged to set up joint ventures or partnerships with First Nation communities.

Joint ventures

During the construction phase, De Beers awarded contracts worth $167 million to Attawapiskat and its joint venture partners. Joint venture companies now supply catering and camp services, explosives and tires. Another joint venture company looks after the transportation of personnel to the site.

“Sustainability is an oxymoron for mining because when you take all of the ore out of the ground, there’s nothing left,” said Fowler.

Developing entrepreneurial skills through business opportunities and joint ventures leaves something of comparable value behind.

“We advise the community about the opportunities and let them know who has tendered to us. Then they have an opportunity to go and talk to them and try to formulate some sort of agreement.”

De Beers promotes racial harmony in the workplace by requiring everyone on the site to participate in cross-cultural training.

The annual, two-hour workshops “make everyone aware of the major differences and sensitivities so people like me don’t put their foot in their mouth by saying or doing the wrong thing,” remarked Fowler.

The exodus of First Nation workers from the mine during the annual spring and fall goose hunts is one example of a cultural difference that could create misunderstanding or resentment, said Tom Ormsby, De Beers Canada director of external and corporate affairs.

“If you don’t come from that culture, you may not understand the value of that hunt,” he said. “Once you understand that they can put away 80 or 90 geese to feed their family for the year, your perceptions go out the window. That’s the way this culture has always operated and we’re going to be respectful of that.”

Attachment to land

It all connects back to the community’s attachment to the land, said Fowler.

“They are the land and the land is them,” he said. “According to their traditional teachings, they are the stewards of the land for future generations.”

The two sides came to an agreement on ground rules for the negotiations and set budgets to cover the cost of advisors and consultants.

“That way, the First Nation had the comfort of knowing they had the resources to move forward and we had the comfort of knowing they had the resources to talk to us.”

It’s important to have a reasonably level playing field, said Fowler.
The mine’s impact on the environment figured prominently in discussions

“We welcomed that,” said Fowler, “because the environment is very important to us as well. Environment, health and safety are at the top of our list. At the end of the day, we have to drink the same water, breathe the same air and live on the same land, so it makes sense to have a common value there.”

The First Nations, for example, were concerned about the effect of the mine on the local caribou herds because of their reliance on caribou as a staple food. They were also concerned about the impact of the mine on water and fish.

An environmental management committee with equal representation from Attawapiskat and De Beers was established, and the company made a practice of consulting with the community prior to submitting an application for a permit or license.

The Attawapiskat First Nation has benefited from jobs, business opportunities, training and direct financial payments, but the impact of the mine goes beyond dollars and cents.

Fowler, for example, tells the story of one young woman in the catering department who took a course on how to use a fire extinguisher to put out a fire.

“When she went home, she bought a fire extinguisher for herself. A little bit later, there was a fire in a neighbour’s house, and she put it out. Since then, her neighbours have also bought fire extinguishers, so, some of the training we do has a domino effect.”

It isn’t all sunshine and smiles. Attawapiskat still has a long way to go. It desperately needs to replace an elementary school that was contaminated by a diesel spill. Housing is in poor condition and in short supply, resulting in overcrowding, and a sewer backup flooded eight or nine houses in July, forcing the evacuation of 70 members of the community to Cochrane.


“There is a lot of frustration in the community,” said Fowler. “There’s a big push on to get a proper elementary school and we support that. Unfortunately, we’re not in a position to step up to the plate and put the $30 million on the table to build one.”

However, the company has agreed to help renovate some of the community’s housing and has provided trailers for short-term emergency accommodations.

The stark contrast between living standards at the mine and in Attawapiskat is another irritant.

At Victor, “the dining room is clean and the food is reasonable,” said Fowler. “Everyone has their own room and it’s quite comfortable. Then they go back to the community where there are issues with the housing and they say ‘This mine was built just up the road from us in the middle of nowhere in just over two years and we’re struggling with the same issues for two or more decades.’ This is very frustrating for them and I can understand that frustration.”

On the plus side, however, the people of the Attawapiskat First Nation have more confidence in their ability to take on Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and address the needs of the community, said Ormsby.

The company has also negotiated IBAs with the Moose Cree, Fort Albany and Kasechewan First Nations, each reflecting the mine’s impact on the community and the boundaries of their traditional lands.

Best practices

  • Ensure a continuity of messages and messengers
  • Get to know each other away from the negotiating table
  • Say what you’ll do and do what you say
  • Develop entrepreneurial skills
  • Promote cross-cultural understanding
  • Recognize First Nation attachment to the land
  • Ensure a level playing field in negotiations

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