Working with Indigenous communities: A rock-solid approach for the mining sector

Mining site at the Lynn Lake Gold Project. Photo Courtesy of Alamos Gold Inc.

As the world embarks on a transformative journey towards green and digital technologies, demand for critical minerals is soaring. Manitoba, like all provinces and territories, have an abundance of high-quality deposits needed to fuel this rapidly changing economy.

To catch this wave and future-proof the country’s economy, the Government of Canada released its Critical Minerals Strategy in 2022, identifying 31 minerals—six of which were specifically prioritized: lithium, graphite, nickel, cobalt and copper. These are the building blocks for essential products like mobile phones, solar panels, medical devices and electric vehicle batteries.

For industry observers, it’s clear the path to unearthing these natural resources lies in positive engagement with Indigenous communities.

Manitoba is the “Costco of critical minerals”
Wanting in on the action, the Manitoba government launched its own parallel resources roadmap last summer. According to the province, nearly 50 companies are currently exploring for critical mineral deposits across Manitoba.

“The potential to be an economic powerhouse of the Prairies offering better job opportunities and an environment for industry to grow,” said Manitoba Premier, Heather Stefanson during a press conference.

“Manitoba is like the Costco of critical minerals: if you need it, we’ve got it,” she said, alluding to the fact that 29 of the 31 federal strategic minerals are found in the province.

Manitoba’s report highlighted not only the potential for attracting investments from the mining sector, but also for economic prosperity for remote Indigenous communities whose ancestral lands often sit atop the mineral deposits themselves.

Sustainable development therefore necessitates partnerships with the original stewards of the land.

Engagement with communities a must
“In order to be in the business at this point, you need First Nation partnership and engagement.”

When Jim Rondeau says this, it comes from a place of deep knowledge and lived experience.

From 2004 to 2008 he was the Minister of Industry, Economic Development and Mines in Manitoba under the then-NDP government. Today he’s both a major projects consultant for Norway House Cree Nation and has a seat on the board of directors for the Flying Nickel Mining Corporation who are actively working toward mineral extraction in the community.

“Now it’s basically the way you do business. A company has to engage with First Nations. It has to be ready to work with and facilitate communications with First Nations, and it also has to make sure that they accommodate the needs and desires of the leadership and entire First Nation community,” says Rondeau.

In 2023, Flying Nickel signed an impact benefit agreement with Norway House to advance a nickel mining project, about 225 kilometers south of Thompson. Once the mine is in full swing, the Minago Mine Project is expected to yield about 37.5 million pounds of nickel every year, with the potential to also quarry an estimated $450 million worth of limestone over 10 years.

As part of this partnership, the company created an independent director seat on their board, promised several environmental protection measures and created a special financial arrangement for Norway House to acquire common shares—18 per cent of which are currently owned by the community, according to Rondeau.

Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act recognizes and affirms Indigenous rights related to the historical occupancy and use of ancestral lands; This imposes a duty by the Crown to consult and accommodate First Nation communities. And while this duty does not necessarily extend to private industry, Rondeau says communities may shut the door on companies that fail to genuinely engage, or governments may refuse to sign off on permits.

“The mining industry, as with any industry, there’s been some bad actors in the past. There’s some legacy issues, there’s old mines that were not left properly. I think there’s a lot of communication and relationship building that needs to happen with all first nations,” he says.

Mining site at the Lynn Lake Gold Project. Photo Courtesy of Alamos Gold Inc.

A golden opportunity in northern Manitoba
Nearly 400 kilometers to the northeast of Norway House’s Minago Mine, another similar deal was recently struck near Lynn Lake, Manitoba.

According to Toronto-based Alamos Gold Inc., Lynn Lake is one of the highest-grade open pit gold deposits in Canada. In their recent feasibility study the company estimates that over the expected 17-year life of the mine it will extract 2.2 million ounces of gold.

Considering this optimistic outlook, last June Marcel Colomb First Nation signed an impact benefit agreement with the company. If all goes according to plan, Alamos Gold says production could start as early as 2027.

“Our belief is that First Nations should benefit from our activities in the form of employment and business opportunities. Alamos has developed agreements with First Nation communities at each of our Canadian operations and projects.  Each of these agreements outlines our mutual expectations to consult and pro-actively manage our environmental impact,” says Colin Webster, vice president of sustainability and external relations for Alamos Gold.

Alamos Gold says they also establish environmental advisory committees to review key environmental issues and solicit feedback from communities on how they can improve their practices to ensure the surrounding natural environments are not negatively impacted.

Webster says the ability to hire workers directly from the community is beneficial for all and that mining projects also present significant long-term spin-off entrepreneurship opportunities for the local economy, a view shared by community leaders.

We are a wealthy Nation
Back in Norway House, Chief Larson Anderson is looking forward to what the future holds.

“We’re talking about 450 jobs when the Minago mine is running full throttle,” he says, adding that developing training programs will be crucial to ensure members of the community are qualified for the eventual specialized jobs openings.

“Back in the early 2000s, there were no impact benefit agreements with companies. In our case, it was over disagreements about environmental issues. Now we’ve got a seat at the table,” says Chief Anderson.

Norway House’s Chief says while Flying Nickel continues to work out the details to bring the mine to production, they aren’t sitting back and waiting. The band council is thinking about how to best capitalize on what will eventually be a flurry of activity. As an initial strategy, Chief Anderson says they have already purchased mining camps in the region to help house workers down the line.

And this is just the start.
“What kind of businesses can we start up without having to wait for the mine? Maybe a service station off the main highway. Possibly a motel or other lodging? A restaurant even,” he says. “We’re also looking into the possibility of putting in a rail line directly to the site.”

“We are a wealthy nation. We’re very proud. We want what everyone else has: a fair deal and fair wages for our community,” says Chief Anderson.


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