Mining in Aboriginal Homelands

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Extraction of base and precious metals has, for many years, been important to the economy of the territorial North. Nevertheless, mines and mineral-related infrastructure have not attracted the level of attention in Ottawa that has been reserved for northern oil and gas development. This is changing rapidly. The business pages of our metropolitan newspapers now buzz with stories of "world-class" mineral finds in Labrador, the NWT, and elsewhere.

Distinguishing stock market hype from geological and economic reality is sometimes difficult, but important mineral developments in the Slave Geological Province north of Yellowknife, in northern Quebec, and in coastal Labrador seem soon to occur. Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) Diamonds Inc. intends to develop a huge diamond mine on the tundra at Lac de Gras, 300 km northeast of Yellowknife. A public review of this project is now under way. Kennecott Canada plans a second diamond mine in the same region. Diamond Fields is moving quickly to develop its Voisey's Bay nickel, copper, and cobalt find near Nain, Labrador, and the Raglan zinc deposit in northern Quebec may soon be developed.

There is some irony in the timing of these likely developments, for industry believes itself to be less welcome in Canada now than in the past. It has started a public relations and political campaign to "keep mining in Canada," trying to persuade government to simplify regulations, broaden access to land for exploration, limit areas set aside for ecological reasons, and generally to look more favourably upon mineral exploration and development.

The federal government is responding. The Northern Minerals Policy of the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development is soon to be amended, as is the Mines and Minerals Policy of Natural Resources Canada. The antiquated Yukon mining legislation is to be amended comprehensively. In a time of severe budgetary constraint, Ottawa, Yellowknife, and Whitehorse see royalty and taxation revenue from producing mines, and many northerners anticipate the jobs they expect mines to generate.

But how do aboriginal peoples view increased mineral exploration and development in their homelands? Will they have any influence on the scale, pace, and timing of development? How might they benefit? Can development of minerals-a finite resource-contribute to economic, social, and environmental sustainability?

CARC initiated the Northern Minerals Programme (NMP) in late summer 1995 to address these questions in the Slave Geological Province. This research and advocacy programme is enabling CARC to intervene in the environmental assessment of BHP's proposed diamond mine and to participate in federal mineral policy processes. But mineral-related issues are not unique to this region. Other jurisdictions share similar questions, concerns, and opportunities. In light of this, Robert F. Keith, a long-time member and a past chair of CARC, talked about these issues with aboriginal peoples from Labrador to Yukon. This issue of Northern Perspectives reports what he heard.

An important task before us now is to ensure that the documented concerns of aboriginal peoples are addressed in policy and legislative processes. We also must ensure that the principle of sustainability is upheld in these processes and is fully reflected in new and amended policies and legislation.

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