It is estimated that 60% of all mining activity in Canada takes place on Aboriginal lands. In many cases Aboriginal people have been hit the hardest by the social and environmental impacts of mining activities, from exploration through mine development and operation and to closure and abandonment.
Mining and mineral exploration can bring opportunities for economic development, jobs and training. It can also bring environmental destruction, abrupt cultural change and fundamental changes in the way people use land.
Aboriginal communities face a variety of challenges arising from both the rapid expansion of the mining frontier into new areas and the ongoing toxic legacy of existing and abandoned mines on their lands. Many Aboriginal community members continue to pursue a traditional life-style based on hunting and fishing and/or maintain a spiritual connection to the land, so they are particularly vulnerable to the disruption of the eco-systems and their culture from large-scale mining.
Large injections of money into the community can bring with it alcohol and drug abuse and gambling. If the community hosts the operation, a large amount of workers can descend upon the community. If the operation is a fly-in/fly-out operation, workers will be away from their families for weeks at a time, creating stress with the family life. There have been many Aboriginal people who have complained that while they got employment at the mine, they were not given jobs that they enjoyed or jobs that were valued. Some Aboriginal workers have complained about racism, and a lack of cultural understanding for Aboriginal values such as time off needed for a tragedy in the community or for participating in the hunt. Often, mining will be in conflict with traditional ways of life.
If a First Nation chooses to go ahead with a mining development, it is important that it recognizes its negotiating power. Nothing will change the fact that the minerals that the company wants to exploit are on the First Nations' territory. There are agreements like a Memorandum of Understanding and Impact and Benefit Agreement, whereby the First Nation can have control over the outcome of the process. It is important that the First Nation be clear with the mining company what it wants - be it environmental monitors, training for its people, a certain amount of guaranteed jobs at the mine, caribou migration monitoring, etc. It is important for everybody to realize that mining companies see money as their bottom line, and that they are most accountable to their shareholders. It is up to the First Nation to insist that their rights and needs be met, and that the mining company go about their operations responsibly. A company will only be as responsible as it is pushed to be.
The relationship between Aboriginal communities and mining must be understood in the context of the broader movement for self- government and recognition of Aboriginal rights, which has won a series of significant political and legal victories in the last three decades. Aboriginal peoples in Canada are the original inhabitants of the land and have never surrendered their fundamental rights to self-determination, nor, in many cases, to ownership and control over their traditional lands. Many, but not all, of these peoples have signed treaties with the European colonial powers or the Canadian state on a nation-to-nation basis for peace and friendship, trade, or to share land resources with the newcomers. In spite of the fact that Aboriginal rights are recognised within the Canadian constitution, their interpretation is still debated. Historically, these rights have either been ignored by the dominant white society or just interpreted very narrowly.
The question for Aboriginal communities is not whether they have the fundamental right to control what happens on their land, but how to exercise these rights in the face of the powerful coalition of corporations and governments eager to develop natural resources (including minerals) on Aboriginal lands. Aboriginal communities can refuse mining companies access to their land, or they can negotiate their own terms for allowing mineral exploration and exploitation on their lands.