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Attawapiskat First Nation 

Case Study
  • De Beers’ relationship with Attawapiskat has been developed over the past 15 years and is constantly evolving as both parties to the IBA strive to live up to the terms of their agreement. Although this section briefly describes some of the challenges associated with implementing specific IBA provisions, this case demonstrates the significance of persevering effort by De Beers and Attawapiskat First Nation to work together toward mutual goals and maintain a positive relationship.

Case Study

The traditional territory of the Attawapiskat First Nation extends far beyond their reserve; extending up the coast to Hudson Bay and hundreds of kilometres inland along river tributaries past the Victor mine site (Inf. #6). There are over 2800 members of Attawapiskat First Nation, but the local on-reserve population is approximately 1500 (INAC, 2009). The community is accessible by a winter ice road from late January-March, and only via air during the rest of the year. Traditional harvesters from Attawapiskat First Nation regularly hunt caribou, goose, and fish along the Attawapiskat River, while tending trap lines throughout the region (Berkes et al., 1994; Whiteman, 2004). Like many other northern Cree communities, these traditional activities are more than subsistence, comprising an important part of local culture and identity (Inf. #2, 4). Therefore, the community leadership was very concerned with the proposed development of the Victor mine, and, at De Beers` invitation, sought to ensure that any environmental impacts of the mine would be effectively mitigated.

The proposed development of the mine was the first significant industrial development within the traditional territory of the Attawapiskat First Nation; among other issues, the mine sparked debate within the community regarding how to proceed given their longstanding interest in environmental protection and cultural preservation on one hand, and the economic benefits the mine could bring on the other (Inf. #2, 8). According to one informant, “the community was wary of the colonial history of De Beers and the mining industry`s track record with Aboriginal communities” (Inf. #2). De Beers` Jonathan Fowler recalls the complex situation the company faced, 

Case Study
We were... regarded as a pariah. This lack of trust negatively impacted a whole range of and processes. This lack of trust was coupled with a lack of understanding about the project and this was compounded by language issues and the absence of applicable words in the local dialect to explain what was planned.
Fowler, 2008: 24

Case Study

To address the host of legacy issues and other community concerns, De Beers began a campaign designed build relationships and foster trust with the community. This included over 100 community meetings as part of the engagement and environmental assessment processes. During these meetings, De Beers sought to educate the community on the company`s values, plans for partnering with the First Nation in employment, education, and business development, and most importantly, providing an clear description of the planned development using local liaisons and translators (Fowler, 2008). Additionally, De Beers provided funds for the communities to contract external advisors in order to provide third-party insight to their local and regional issues and interests.

Based on the community-sensitive approach to providing and translating information by De Beers and assurances from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA), the leadership of Attawapiskat signed an MOU with De Beers in 1999 that outlined the type of relationship both parties aimed to foster; with guidelines for communication, liaising with the community, environmental protection, business opportunities, and training for future mine employment (DBC, 2000). Following the MOU, an Exploration Agreement was signed to allow De Beers to conduct further drilling in their territory, on the condition that the First Nation would be involved in site selection and decision-making throughout the exploration process and enter into IBA negotiations with De Beers. Although there were many local concerns about the potential socio-cultural impacts of mining, the Chief and Council made the decision to continue working with De Beers in the hopes of signing an IBA. In the words of former Attawapiskat Chief Mike Carpenter, “De Beers Canada’s diamond mine is the first and only opportunity our community has ever had to break free of our soul-destroying poverty” (Studol, 2008).

In early 2003, Attawapiskat entered into formal IBA negotiations with De Beers. While much of the financial arrangements within the agreement are confidential, negotiators representing the community worked to secure educational, employment and training, business development, environmental monitoring, and other provisions designed to address the potential impacts to the community while ensuring increased capture of benefits from mining (see Wawatay News, 2005). Following the successful completion of a three-year federal and provincial environmental assessment process, the IBA was voted on and ratified by the community after receiving 85.5% approval among the membership of Attawapiskat First Nation (De Beers, 2005).

Once the IBA was signed and ratified, it became a legal contract governing the relationship between Attawapiskat and De Beers. It includes important communication protocols between the parties, and outlines dispute resolution processes and mechanisms that both parties must follow. While negotiating the agreement was a laborious task, the “real challenge is implementing the agreement. It’s tough to make it work when you don’t have all the resources you need” (Inf. #6). For example, the community had great success in securing employment opportunities during the construction phase of mine development (see Table 2), but since operations began in 2008 it has been a struggle to educate, train, and retain local workers for positions that require industrial certifications and advanced training (Inf. #2).

Much of the challenges associated with implementing IBAs in northern Aboriginal communities such as Attawapiskat are related to lack of professional and institutional capacity. For example, the IBA includes funding for hiring a local ‘IBA Coordinator’ to assist with implementation of key provisions and advise the Chief and Council on how to best make use of the agreement; however, this position has yet to be filled in the five years since the agreement was signed (Inf. #2, 6). A recent interview with Attawapiskat’s Director of Lands and Resources, John B. Nakogee, provided insight to this particular issue, and the broader challenge of implementation (see Video).

This significant limitation, largely based on the difficulty of hiring highly-skilled professionals to fill important roles in the community, has impacted the First Nation’s ability to take full advantage of the IBA, and led to frustration within the community. For example, an 18-day community blockade was staged in February 2009 in protest of the terms of the IBA (see Feeney, 2009a). The roadblock was established when local frustrations erupted as community members felt DeBeers was not living up to the terms of the IBA (see Feeney, 2009b). It was eventually found that many of the issues that led to the protest were rooted in the lack of communication and understanding between the Chief and Council and Attawapiskat First Nation membership regarding the terms of the IBA and its implementation. According to John B. Nakogee, De Beers met with the community and has dealt with the legitimate concerns in good faith. However, he cited this conflict as an example for IBAs and future agreements to be “more native-centred in their design, but mostly their communication.”

Despite the range of challenges associated with meeting local expectations for employment and job training, Nakogee, and other informants from Attawapiskat, are pleased with the implementation of the environmental protection section of the IBA. In particular, the locally-based Environmental Monitoring Committee (EMC) has managed to draw on local traditional knowledge and expertise to identify changing patterns of nearby Caribou herd movement, likely in response to the mine (Inf. #4, 6). This emerging issue is one of significant local importance, and is currently being discussed among the EMC members and Chief and Council to be taken to De Beers for further discussion (Inf. #2, 6).

Although De Beers has been actively involved in Attawapiskat for over 15 years, the relationship between the company and the community is just beginning to mature, and, according to Fowler (2008) there is an element of trust among the First Nation leadership and key contacts at De Beers. While this relationship has proved challenging for both sides, it is working; Attawapiskat is receiving significant benefits from the Victor mine and De Beers is pleased with the relatively conflict-free operation of its significant investment. However, this relationship is constantly under scrutiny from local First Nation membership and external interest groups, and will continue to be defined by the commitment of both parties to honour the terms of their IBA and continue to act in good faith.


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Supporting Links

Stan Studol, 2008 ‘Ontario’s mining sins of the father are being repeated by the son’

Wawatay News – July 14, 2005 ‘Attawapiskat give thumbs up to mining project’ 

Wawatay News – February 18, 2009 ‘Attawapiskat members issue demands to De Beers’ 

Wawatay News – March 5, 2009 ‘Attawapiskat, De Beers official meet to discuss road blockade’

Additional Info

Attawapiskat First Nation website

Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal – ‘Victor Mine a game changer for Far North’

Northern Ontario Business - December 7, 2009 ‘Attawapiskat unhappy over Victor Mine issues’

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