Courtesy of Hannah Burke

Today’s mining industry is embracing its corporate social responsibility, which includes recognizing Indigenous rights and sovereignty. Although this approach can create successful relationships and positive consultations between industry and Indigenous Nations, the majority of Indigenous Nations, where much of Canada’s mineral exploration takes place, still do not have the resources or capacity to engage in the process in an effective way. Today, however, there is real opportunity to change this. 

In many Indigenous communities, health and safety are threatened by the lack of basic necessities such as clean water, secure housing, food, education resources, health services, communication technology, and sharing of knowledge and information. These issues are often more acutely felt in rural northern communities. Provision of these basic necessities is intrinsically dependent on each Indigenous Nation’s access to, ownership of, and capacity to maintain infrastructure and capital assets. The development and implementation of Indigenous Nations asset management systems (AMSs) can facilitate maintaining those assets because AMSs, computerized systems for creating an asset inventory, allow for operation and maintenance forecasts as well as support financial reporting and the allocation of resources.

In the corporate world, an AMS ensures that a company’s tangible assets are maintained, accounted for and put to their most effective use. Provincial authorities have seen the benefits of using this strategy and are now imposing regulations and providing resources to municipalities to implement comprehensive AMSs.

The dynamics for Indigenous Nations are different. There has been a movement in the last few decades to more thoroughly document the traditional territories of Indigenous Nations, particularly in Canada, in order to protect Aboriginal rights to practise traditional customs, ceremonies and harvesting activities from mineral exploration and extraction, forestry activities and other resource development. In fact, recent Supreme Court of Canada case rulings in favour of First Nations, Inuit and Métis rights have hinged on the abundance and validity of data to assert historic and ancestral rights to traditional practices and customs on traditional land infringed upon by natural resource development activities and disputes over jurisdiction.

Related: Meeting Indigenous groups face-to-face and seeing things from their perspectives can lead to better outcomes in the engagement process

Today a stronger emphasis on education that includes traditional knowledge and historical literacy along with increased access to technology gives young Indigenous people the ability to exercise and to protect treaty and constitutional Aboriginal rights. This has resulted in a cultural regeneration and a more focused conversation about reconciliation. It also lays the foundation for Indigenous Nations, too, to adapt such an AMS. Such a system can be customized to meet their unique infrastructure and capital asset operation and maintenance needs and capacity, as well as to meet, and ideally exceed, federal reporting requirements for infrastructure funding.

With an AMS, that information and data reside in one centralized location and can be accessed more readily to both manage community services and as a resource for consultation and engagement between the interested Indigenous Peoples and industry proponents to work towards mutually beneficial relationships and project outcomes.

A case study

The Waabnoong Bemjiwang Association of First Nations (WBAFN), a tribal council that includes six First Nations in the Sudbury district, are currently developing an integrated digital GIS-based AMS to meet the needs of each member First Nation. The goals of the WBAFN AMS project are improving management of capital infrastructure asset construction, operation and maintenance, and empowering member First Nations to forecast socio-economic needs, all of which could help WBAFN respond to potential opportunities arising from renewed mineral industry projects and partnerships. With a greater handle on the condition of existing assets, identification of gaps in capital funding and projection of infrastructure needs to meet community capital plans, the six involved First Nations will be better informed in consultations on upcoming mineral industry projects.

The timing of the WBAFN AMS project coincides with Vale and Glencore assessing the potential of deeper deposits at Nickel Rim South Mine in the Sudbury district. With successful implementation of the AMS, the WBAFN will be able to allocate financial and time resources more effectively, driving job creation leading to greater staffing capacity for consultation with Vale and Glencore on the proposed project.

The broader adoption of these tools and resources have the potential to be a win for the Indigenous Nations and contribute to governance, socio-economic opportunities, environmental sustainability, long-term health and cultural well-being as well as for those in the minerals industry looking to work with them at the consultation table in the pursuit of successful and sustainable exploration and development.

Hannah Burke is an environmental professional (EP), project manager, natural resource development advisor and community and social engagement advocate in the mineral exploration and environmental sciences industries. She is a proud Anishinaabe kwe from Wahnapitae First Nation.