| TORONTO, March 17
TORONTO, March 17 An aboriginal protest movement
that's often compared with Occupy Wall Street has the potential
to disrupt mining projects across Canada, threatening to
undermine the country's coveted reputation for low-risk resource
Idle No More, a grass-roots movement with little centralized
leadership, swept across Canada late last year with the help
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.
"We've existed in this territory for millennia. We don't
have a land claim - it's beyond that, actually. Our rights exist
throughout all of our territories," Arlen Dumas, chief of the
Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, said about the northern Manitoba
land where HudBay Minerals Inc, a Toronto-based
mid-tier miner, is building its Lalor project.
Protesters cut off access to the gold-copper-zinc mine for
several hours in early March, demanding talks with the company
on an ownership stake in the C$794 million ($773.84
million)project, which has started limited production.
HudBay, which has mined in northern Manitoba for nearly 85
years, made it clear it prefers not to negotiate directly with
the community, which is about 125 km (78 miles) away from Lalor
and is one of many First Nations bands in the region.
Instead, the company is participating in an
inter-governmental mining committee, which deals with such
things as how benefits are split among parties.
"We're kind of in the crossfire of that," said HudBay Chief
Executive David Garofalo. "At the end of the day it's important
that those governments talk to each other and establish a
revenue-sharing model that sustains both governments - both the
Canadian governments and the First Nation governments."
Canada is the world's top potash producer and the No. 2
uranium producer, and boasts large reserves of base and precious
metals. A large percentage of the mineral deposits are in remote
areas in the north of the country, where living conditions for
aboriginal bands are often poor.
The Canadian protests - groups also blockaded a diamond mine
in northern Ontario in a push for jobs and cash - are a far cry
from actions taken by countries such as Venezuela and Kyrgyzstan
to claw back stakes in projects being developed by foreign
Even so, Canada is feeling the heat. 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
"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
"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.
WANTED: A BETTER DEAL
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.
"Not all aboriginal communities have been able to enter into
the same quality or types of arrangement," said Blake Langill,
Toronto mining leader at global accounting firm Ernst & Young.
"So that sharing of the information will be very powerful,"
he said. "It will give them some food for thought as they engage
in discussion with the mining companies."
The blockade of a northern Ontario diamond mine is an
example of just that, as protesters from the Attawapiskat First
Nation twice in February barred access to an ice road leading to
De Beers' Victor mine, disrupting a winter supply program.
Residents of the reserve, some 90 km (55 miles) east of the
mine, were angry over issues ranging from a lack of jobs and
training to compensation for the loss of trap lines. They set up
the blockade even though an investment deal was signed with De
Beers in 2005.
The two sides failed to come to terms on compensation and De
Beers, a subsidiary of Anglo American Plc, eventually
won an injunction to remove the blockade.
"It's a constant relationship in progress," said De Beers
Canada spokesman Tom Ormsby, noting the company has been in
talks with the community for months over a litany of issues.
Ormsby said De Beers makes payments to a compensation fund
and the community must then determine how that money is
distributed to individuals.
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 it's not all gloom and doom when miners and First
Nations meet. For every project where there is conflict, there
are also aboriginal bands that have used mining investment to
create economic opportunity for their 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."