By Lethbridge Herald Opinion on November 25, 2020.
It is important to note that consultation does not provide any First Nation with a veto over a project. First Nations need to lobby to be recognized as having an interest in a given area that is the subject of development by industry.
In these instances, a First Nation has basically two choices: one is to do nothing and the development will occur in any case subject to approval by the regulatory agencies. The second choice is to lobby and convince government and the industry proponent that we have an interest and we need to be in discussions with the industry proponent. In these discussions First Nations struggle to obtain basic funding for impact assessment studies and traditional land-use assessments, and that they are able to address mitigation measures and obtain benefits for their First Nations, despite the odds and challenges they face in this lengthy and complex process. Funding was not adequate in this case to do an extensive community engagement process and only covered the traditional land-use assessments and other key studies required.
Despite funding challenges the Blood Tribe worked to ensure that a project like the Grassy Mountain Mine was carefully reviewed and that engagement occurred with regulators and project proponents. A key part of that process was conducting a traditional land-use assessment with traditional knowledge holders and traditional land users. Traditional knowledge keepers assisted in the conduct of traditional land-use impact assessments by making site visits and identifying plant and animal life in the area, cultural sites, hunting and harvesting areas that may be impacted and assisting in identifying mitigation measures.
Cumulative impact and traditional land-use studies were conducted by the Blood Tribe and informed engagement with Benga Mining and were provided to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (now the Impact Assessment Agency). The Blood Tribe also obtained advice from experts in mine reclamation, wildlife biology and environmental law. As result of this process, the Blood Tribe secured conditions on the project to help address potential impacts. Benga has committed to progressively reclaim the mining area in a manner that will meet or exceed current federal and provincial standards. Progressive reclamation means the lands will be reclaimed and restored as mining occurs. The decision to do progressive reclamation was made based on input from the Blood Tribe. Further, Benga has agreed that the reclamation of the mine site will be planned and carried out by way of discussions with the Blood Tribe that must take into account the Blood Tribe’s traditional knowledge and use of the lands for traditional purposes. The goal of the process is to restore the mine site to a state that can support treaty rights and traditional land use.
Through its efforts and using the duty to consult the Blood Tribe was able to ensure that, if the project proceeds, it will do so only on these conditions:
1. Benga has agreed to engage in on-going consultation with the Blood Tribe throughout the life of the project including the reclamation of the mine area.
2. In addition to the above, an Environmental Stewardship Committee will monitor the project for the purpose of identifying and addressing environmental issues.
3. Benga has agreed to a number of significant measures to support the Blood Tribe’s connection to and use of the Crowsnest Pass Region.
4. Culturally significant sites identified by the Blood Tribe in the mine area will be protected where possible throughout the operation of the mine and the reclamation of the mine area.
5. Benga has agreed to make an annual financial contribution to the Blood Tribe linked to production from the mine; these funds will be used for community purposes.
The Blood Tribe reached an agreement with Benga Mining only after Benga agreed to the above conditions to address impacts and other matters such as economic benefit to the Tribe from the project if it proceeds. These kinds of agreements are confidential for a number of reasons. Project proponents have to address the concerns of many First Nations who are in different proximities and circumstances with respect to a project. Addressing those varying interests would be impossible without confidentiality. Also, many First Nations do not wish to have the terms of such agreements shared with other stakeholders or other First Nations.
There have been 22 press releases since 2015 by the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency about the transparent and very public regulatory process for the project. Public participation in the environmental review has been an option open to any individual who has concerns about the project.
We encourage the media to publish the entire Blood Tribe Community Update to ensure fair and balanced reporting. The Community Update not only contains a summary of the key conditions the Blood Tribe negotiated with Benga, it also provides important context, as the Blood Tribe has clearly communicated to the coal sector and the Government of Alberta that the Blood Tribe strongly opposes any further coal mine development in critically sensitive areas of the Crowsnest Pass region in the headwaters of the Oldman River Basin and will continue to do so.