Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Cooler heads must prevail on resources

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FLIN FLON -- "You have no right to be raping Mother Earth and we're here to defend her," an assertive but unidentified woman told a prim crowd gathered in a Winnipeg banquet room last spring.

Ordinarily, the contention, aimed at officials of northern Manitoba miner Hudbay, might have been dismissed as fantastic hyperbole.

But the speaker, along with roughly 10 activists who joined her, are part of an increasingly visible aboriginal protest movement that the mining industry and the NDP government take seriously.

It's not so much Idle No More as it is No More Mining! And it extends far beyond a handful of protesters voicing over-the-top rhetoric.

At stake now may well be the long-term viability of the northern Manitoba economy as we know it.

It was with considerable pride last month that the NDP unveiled its solution to the discontent: the Mining Advisory Council, a roundtable group featuring representatives from industry, government and First Nations.

Unfortunately, there are already questions as to whether the council genuinely is "a positive step towards building a more sustainable future," as Lovro Paulic, head of nickel giant Vale's Thompson operations, hopefully opined.

For one, Arlen Dumas, the chief of Pukatawagan's Mathias Colomb Cree Nation, is nowhere to be found on the council's roster.

Dumas is the public face of aboriginal dissent against mining in Manitoba. His resumé includes leading two blockades (he called them "peaceful demonstrations") at Hudbay's Lalor mine near Snow Lake, and serving Hudbay with a "notice of eviction" to vacate aboriginal territory.

I have been unable to reach Dumas for comment. A provincial spokesperson told me Dumas was originally invited to participate in the council, "but unfortunately, he withdrew his participation earlier this year."

While that does not mean Dumas is excluded from offering his input, his absence is highly conspicuous.

Then less than two weeks ago, Manitoba's top chief, Derek Nepinak, publicly stated no new mines will open in the province without First Nations consent.

"We are living in a day and age where new leadership is emerging and we are not going to sit back," Nepinak, grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, told the Free Press.

Not all First Nations leaders hold such a steadfast position. After all, nine chiefs from across the province are on the council, including the esteemed Norway House chief, Ron Evans, as co-chairman.

Evans told the Free Press the council process "has potential for opportunities for all of us."

It's not as though there's no precedent to work from. Deals between First Nations and uranium and potash miners in Saskatchewan keep getting signed, including a recent "opportunities agreement" between BHP Billiton and three bands in Saskatchewan.

But Dumas has made it clear his band's "interests are not about impact benefits like education, training and employment."

"The issue is not about consultation and impact benefits; it is about consent and ownership," Dumas wrote in his "notice of eviction" to Hudbay last summer.

Evans' optimism must also be measured against a press release, issued last April, in which three major provincial aboriginal organizations vowed to enforce self-styled "stop-work orders" for mines they say are on their territory.

Those mines included, at the very least, Hudbay's Lalor and Reed mines near Snow Lake, but possibly others at Thompson, Flin Flon and beyond.

Protests threatened by the groups -- the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, Southern Chiefs' Organization and Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak -- never materialized.

However this situation evolves, Manitoba -- and the mineral-rich and aboriginal-dominated north in particular -- has become a focal point in the battle to control and benefit from natural resources.

Things will probably turn out fine because mining is one of the few realistic ways for struggling northern reserves to advance economically, and because reserves are a potentially abundant source of labour in a region that has difficulty attracting workers.

For that to happen, cooler heads must prevail, both in an industry adjusting to heavy aboriginal involvement and on First Nations desperate for new opportunities.

Jonathon Naylor is editor of The Reminder newspaper in Flin Flon.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2013 $sourceSection0

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