Jason Franson/ CP Photo
Activists say the next few months will see a surge of protest against the resource sector’s enviro transgressions.
With Idle No More top of the news not so long ago, I was pretty sure the sparks would fly at the 2013 conference of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre March 3 to 6.
In the end, protests did happen, but they took place far from the action, though managed nicely to make the connection between mining behaviour at home and abroad.
The first was outside a courtroom at 393 University, where drumming and a sidewalk display of "dirty laundry" drew attention to proceedings against one sponsor of the mining convention: T.O.-based Hudbay Minerals. The case, now in pre-trial, alleges the company, through its Guatemalan subsidiary, is responsible for the death of one indigenous anti-mining activist, the injury of another and the rape of 11 women.
And in far-off northern Manitoba, just as the PDAC meet was drawing to a close, the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation held its second blockade in two months outside Hudbay's Lalor mine at Snow Lake, reminding the company it's on unceded First Nations land and issuing yet another stop-work order.
By taking a hand in these actions, Idle No More was not only targeting current industry practices but also furthering its campaign against the Conservative drive to extract natural resources at any cost, from the tar sands to the Ring of Fire.
Still, you might not guess the influence of this movement if you were just wandering the halls of the Metro Convention Centre.
The only real Idle moment I experienced came during a session when Queen's U grad student Anne Johnson urged PDAC executive director Garry Clark to add his organization's voice to the demand for the repeal of deregulating Bill C-45 "as a demonstration of commitment to creating respectful relations" with aboriginal leaders.
It might surprise some to learn that aboriginal communities across Canada have signed roughly 200 agreements with mining firms for joint projects, in some cases reaping only modest equity stakes.
But as the Idle No More sensibility takes hold, the terrain on the partnership front could get increasingly rocky, fractured as it already is by complaints about inadequate consultation and compensation, disrespect for traditional and sensitive lands, and lingering pollution.
Not that the mining business has remained static. I've been a fly on the wall at PDAC conventions for nearly a decade, watching industry reps struggle fitfully to overcome negative branding at home and abroad.
And there's been a shift in the tide. PDAC now promotes corporate social responsibility, enviro protection and aboriginal engagement, exhorting companies to consult up front. The organization's events open with a smudge ceremony, and Glenn Nolan, a former Missanabie Cree chief, has risen through the ranks to become association president.
I start to get a sense of the fine line, here, talking to Raymond Ferris of the Matawa First Nations near the James Bay lowlands and Ontario's Ring of Fire mining development.
Matawa, which maintains a regular booth on the PDAC convention floor, is currently negotiating a mineral deal with Cliffs Natural Resources, though only a few years ago the group was blockading the company. Matawa also enthusiastically backs Idle No More and initiated its own solidarity roadblock during January's mass actions.
"First Nations have always said they're willing to get into economic and resource development as long as it's done right and we're able to participate from the very beginning," says Ferris.
But he adds that governments need to provide resources so communities can do cultural and socio-economic impact studies and take a meaningful part in assessments. Member groups of his organization, he points out, have made it clear to Premier Kathleen Wynne that "there won't be any hope for the Ring of Fire" if they aren't directly involved in decisions affecting their land.
It's easy to see how complicated these First Nations-industry relationships are. Shawn Batise, exec director of the Timmins-based Wabun Tribal Council, told delegates that mining is so prevalent in northeastern Ontario that the six-member group decided to sign extraction agreements and develop an infrastructure for their own benefit. Recently, for example, the org entered into a relationship with Nordex Explosives.
"Mining has cleaned up its act in the last 10 to 20 years, but it's been hard for First Nations to come to grips with the environmental degradation, and there's a mistrust of government," Batise said.
It's the same in northwestern BC, where the Tahltan Central Council also participates in mining yet has endorsed Idle No More and thwarted projects such as a planned Shell coal-bed methane operation.
"Bill C-45 is literally trying to rip our rights away from us," Tahltan Council president Annita McPhee, who sits on PDAC's board of directors, tells me. "It's about not consulting us when making changes to our land."
It's a key point, says Russell Diabo, a policy adviser to the Algonquin Nation Secretariat in Quebec, when I call him after the conference. "Free entry goes against respecting aboriginal and treaty rights," he says.
Diabo, an expert on sovereignty issues, recognizes that when it comes to mining, communities differ about whether they prioritize economic or environmental concerns. He's clear, though, that constitutional protections and recent Supreme Court rulings mean companies need to start consultations at the earliest exploration stages.
But given the poverty of First Nations, how voluntary are the actual negotiations over mining? It's a concern of Pam Palmater, a Mi'kmaq lawyer, Ryerson prof and key Idle No More organizer, who says housing, water, sanitation and suicide crises have pressured many to sign.
"In any other context, those wouldn't be valid agreements because they're signed under economic duress," she says. "When you're talking about people who sleep in unheated sheds, it's not a level playing field."
However, Palmater says the dialogue is now shifting from consultation and impact to consent and ownership. "If someone wants to come in and develop your resources, there's an ownership cut you give to that company. But at the end of the day it's the First Nations who are the owners of these resources and should be getting the bulk of the benefits."
So can Canadian extraction companies expect a long, hot summer on the protest front? Says Palmater, "We're coordinating action now - it will take a variety of forms."