Michael Peeman of the Ulkatcho First Nation working at the Blackwater project core shack.

Realizing they can benefit from partnering with First Nations, many mineral exploration and mining companies are starting to develop Aboriginal engagement strategies. Some companies, however, are new to the idea, and many of them don’t know where to begin.

“The development of respectful First Nations relationships will benefit everybody in the long run,” says Glen Wonders, vice-president, technical and government affairs, of AME BC. “Open, respectful communication is practical and it works by initiating effective, early and frequent engagement that leads to a good relationship, which can lead to a more formal relationship down the line.”

Wonders says mineral explorers need to understand in detail the actual needs and aspirations of a First Nations community, and not what they think the community needs. “Successful engagement is a ‘win’ all around for everyone,” Wonders says. “First Nations have the opportunity to express their interests and concerns, and identify opportunities, and the mineral exploration company gains greater certainty.”

Two recent examples of successful Aboriginal engagement can be found right here in British Columbia: New Gold Inc.’s Blackwater project and AuRico Gold’s Kemess Underground development project.


New Gold’s Blackwater project is located along the northern flanks of Mt. Davidson in the Nechako Plateau, approximately 160 kilometres southwest of Prince George and 110 kilometres south-southwest of Vanderhoof.

Blackwater director Tim Bekhuys says New Gold acquired the project in mid-2011.

“Since then, we have been working with all nearby First Nations,” he says. “The closest First Nations to our exploration area are the Lhoosk’uz Dené Nation, approximate population 200, and Ulkatcho First Nation, approximate population 1,000. There are a number of other First Nations in the region we are also working with.”

Bekhuys says New Gold’s approach is to be respectful and inclusive. “We seek to understand the goals and values of all the Aboriginal peoples in our areas of exploration before we start.”

He notes that the company tries to reach early agreements with those First Nations that have traditional territories near its exploration activities. “We reached agreements within a few months with all First Nations in whose traditional territories we are conducting exploration near Blackwater,” he says. “In addition, we keep other nearby First Nations informed of our exploration activities, job opportunities and contracts that may arise. We also monitor the land and other potential issues of concern.”

New Gold has made agreements with First Nations that enable them to assess Blackwater, monitor the project and build training and contracting capacity. “The key to reaching the agreements has been understanding the history of the area and its traditional uses, and ensuring that understanding is used in the design, construction, operation and eventual closure of the mine,” Bekhuys says. “We recognize we need to look from Day 1 how we can work with local communities to leave a small footprint.”

Bekhuys says it is important to recognize that each First Nations community is unique. “We endeavour to take a principled approach to reaching agreements. That means it can sometimes take longer to reach an agreement, but hopefully one that is longer lasting.”

Blackwater takes the time to ensure an alignment of its corporate values with the values of the community. “In many communities, there is a desire to see employment,” Bekhuys says. “Other communities are seeking contracting opportunities, or active involvement in environmental monitoring of our exploration.”

He adds that it’s important that the elected chief and council work directly with New Gold’s senior management team – including, where possible, the president of the company.

“Other discussions may need to be more technical in nature,” he says.

Once an agreement is made, New Gold tries to use a common framework, in which a joint implementation committee meets regularly to ensure the agreement commitments are being met. “If there are any unresolved issues, they are elevated to the leadership level, but we have rarely needed to do that.”

According to Bekhuys, the amount of time it takes to reach an agreement can vary widely. “It’s important to spend time getting to understand the values and aspirations of different communities, and they can understand ours, before trying to write a formal agreement,” he says. “The agreement should not be an end unto itself. Reaching an agreement should be seen as an extension of a good relationship. To us, the relationship is more important than simply ‘getting the deal done.’

“In some cases, this trust and understanding happens quite quickly, and in other cases they may take a long time. The true test of a good agreement is an enduring relationship.”

Kemess Underground

AuRico Gold’s Kemess Underground project (KUG) is located approximately 5.5 kilometres north of the Kemess South mine, which operated from 1998 until 2011 in north-central British Columbia. During its lifetime, the Kemess South mine produced almost three million ounces of gold and more than 700 million pounds of copper.

KUG is located within the traditional territories of the Takla Lake First Nation and the Tsay Keh Dene Nation, and adjacent to and downstream of the traditional territory of the Kwadacha Nation. The Gitxsan House of Nii Kyap traditional territory lies adjacent to the KUG project area along its western boundary. There are Metis communities in the region and the project is located within the Treaty 8 disputed area.

Field trip: Tse Keh Nay community visit to the Kemess site.

Collaborative discussions between AuRico and the First Nations directly affected by the project have been taking place over the past number of years. Discussions were initiated with First Nations that are less impacted by the project at the start of the environmental assessment process.

Susan Craig, AuRico’s director of government affairs and community relations, says it’s important for the company to have good working relationships with the local First Nations.

“AuRico has signed an Interim Measures Agreement with a First Nations entity called Tse Keh Nay,” Craig says. “Tse Keh Nay is a collaboration of three First Nations in the area: Takla Lake, Tsay Keh Dene and Kwadacha.”

The Interim Measures Agreement (IMA) is a co-operative agreement that covers advanced exploration and construction on the KUG project. The IMA created a Senior Implementation Committee that is made up of AuRico representatives and the chiefs of the three First Nations. The committee meets monthly to oversee the implementation of the IMA.

An Environmental Management Committee, made up of the representatives of each First Nation and AuRico, also meets regularly to communicate and co-ordinate with the parties about the ongoing and proposed environmental studies to be undertaken, as well as to provide general project updates.

“The agreement was signed in June 2012 after 14 meetings between the First Nations and AuRico beginning in 2010,” says Craig. The next item of business for the parties to deal with is the negotiation of an Impact and Benefit Agreement.