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NOBA 2020: Wabun Tribal Council is the recipient of the Entrepreneurial Community Award

Wabun Tribal Council has developed a tried-and-true model used in negotiating development agreements between Indigenous communities and mining companies.
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Wabun Tribal Council, based in Timmins, has been named Entrepreneurial Community for the 2020 Northern Ontario Business Awards. (File photo)

Wabun Tribal Council is an Ontario leader in negotiating successful agreements with partners in the mining and extractive industries that bring certainty to industry and prosperity to its Indigenous member communities.

The Timmins-based regional chiefs council – which consists of Brunswick House First Nation, Chapleau Ojibwe First Nation, Flying Post First Nation, Matachewan First Nation and Mattagami First Nation – crafted the Wabun Model in the mid-2000s. 

The Wabun Model they've developed is a structured and direct negotiating process between a mining company and area First Nations that spells out how First Nations communities will participate in resource activity within their traditional territory, in this case the area covering Treaty 9.

Up until the mid-2000s, under the free-entry system, there was no obligation for the mining industry to notify and engage Indigenous people in any meaningful dialogue for the activity that took place on their traditional land.

"When I started my career at Detour Lake Mine back in the ’90s, they were just starting to introduce Aboriginal employment and engagement," said Jason Batise, Wabun's executive director. 

"There were jobs but there really wasn't any real sharing of that resource in a bigger sense where communities had revenues and business opportunities – the more fulsome packages that we negotiate now."

It took a string of Supreme Court of Canada decisions in favour of First Nation rights and titles to initiate the consultation and accommodation process.

Batise said the court decisions forced industry to the negotiating table and made legislators and regulators realize what First Nations have been insisting all along: "That the communities own the land or have agreed to share the bounty with the newcomers, and that doesn't mean throwing us the odd job; that means real sharing."

Taking their cue from agreements struck from mine developments in the Northwest Territories and Voisey's Bay in Labrador, the resulting Wabun Model process is a series of templated agreements, beginning at the grassroots exploration stage – basically, a memorandum of understanding and graduating up to impact benefit agreements (IBAs). 

Since signing their first IBA in 2008, Wabun has negotiated eight such agreements, with three "live" negotiations currently underway, said Batise.

In the abundant and rich gold and base metals corridor stretching from Chapleau through Timmins and on to Kirkland Lake, Wabun has negotiated more than 100 early-stage agreements with junior miners working the ground and hoping to prove up a major deposit. This level of agreement basically opens a line of communication and outlines how work will take place.

For Wabun, the latest fruit of their labour was the sod-turning event held in September to start construction of IAMGOLD's Côté Lake project near Gogama, a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ontario Premier Doug Ford. The IBA, signed two years ago, will bring jobs and economic spinoffs to Mattagami and Flying Post First Nations.

Though these agreements are not mandated by government, they are considered an accepted practice within the mining sector as part of a company's social licence to operate.

The details of IBAs are kept confidential – since these are private deals – and they are subject to binding arbitration should the relationship deteriorate. But they cover key chapters in the area of employment, contracting and training opportunities, revenue sharing, and above all else, protection of the environment.

A proposed mine has to be as environmentally benign as possible, said Batise. 

"We know there are going to be impacts, but how do we manage and mitigate those? It's probably the most important piece to our communities."

There are non-negotiable no-go zones, Batise added.

"If you're proposing to build your mine on a known burial ground, move on with your idea because that's probably not going to be palatable to our communities."

Over the years, Batise feels, they've been consistent with their approach and expectations in what mining companies are capable of sharing with the communities. And they've learned to walk the line in balancing environmental safeguards with industrial development by not overreaching on certain conditions to the point where it kills a mineral project.

"Our agreements are, and have been, described as reasonable, and that's important," said Batise.

"My community of Matachewan has been picked over for 100 years, from Kirkland Lake to Gowganda and Matachewan itself with the current Alamos mine scheduled for run until 2038,” he said.

"Like it or not, this has become a mainstay of the economy in northeastern Ontario. How do we start to participate? In Timmins and Kirkland Lake, they're reworking old mines and coming up with better ways to go deeper and process the ore.

"We have to bundle that up and figure out what is a fair deal.”

The value of these IBAs are worth many millions of dollars to the Wabun communities based on the production over the operating lives of the mines. Combined with additional monies coming in from provincial resource revenue-sharing, Batise makes no apologies for negotiating lucrative deals as treaty rights-bearing communities to those mineral resources.

"My home community is doing exceptionally well. We're in the middle of gold country and there's no reason for Matachewan to not only be surviving but thriving in this environment with gold at all-time record highs."

Batise said he's particularly proud of the meaningful job creation through the establishment of Indigenous businesses, now servicing the mining industry, that are investing back into the region's economy.

"I actually tell the mining industry our communities aren't remaining static. We are pushing money back into the economy of northeastern Ontario. Matachewan has invested more than $10 million back into the system to help supply the mine service chain. Those things are important to us."

Since launching in 1986, the Northern Ontario Business Awards has become the largest annual gathering of its kind in Northern Ontario. These awards serve to heighten the visibility and influence of business in the North and bring peer recognition to the business leaders who create prosperity and economic growth.


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