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Mining and Indigenous communities—what matters most are relationships

September 30, 2019

By Jamie Davignon

Consultation isn’t just about checking a box, it’s about meaningful relationships built on real engagement to drive successful projects in Indigenous communities

Ever since becoming an engineer-in-training (EIT) more than three years ago, I’ve found many aspects of my career to appreciate. I love working with people to plan communities. I enjoy tackling the tough challenges that involve working with our clients toward a resolution. And I love to learn about anything and everything, which is why I’ve grown such an interest in attending industry conferences.

As an EIT working out of a remote office in Whitehorse, Yukon, building relationships and business development is a key part of my job. I’ve found that conferences offer me an excellent opportunity to expand my network and further my knowledge of the industry. This was exceptionally true at an Association of Mineral Exploration (AME) conference I attended earlier this year.

The conference focused on fostering respectful relations with Indigenous communities. It reinforced the importance of meaningful engagement—beyond social responsibility. As a Tahltan woman living in a northern region with self-governing First Nations, I found the discussions to be remarkably insightful.

Author Jamie Davignon stick gambling with her family at their fish camp in Telegraph Creek, British Columbia.

Building relationships with Indigenous communities

The first idea that was reinforced for me was something I already knew: communication between Indigenous communities and the wider industry is key. What I witnessed at the conference was so refreshing. Traditionally, Indigenous consultation has often felt forced—just a box to check off to help enhance the social license for a project. But the message at the conference? To aspire for more than just consultation and consent. To focus on building strong relationships with Indigenous communities by truly trying to understand their perspectives.

Involving local community members on our project teams improves our work and builds more meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities.

I was proud to see how high my peers were prioritizing these efforts because I know how important relationships are to Indigenous Peoples. And oftentimes, the most powerful relationships are formed through storytelling. When I’m meeting with an Indigenous community for the first time, I try to form a connection by telling the story of my community. What are my people’s values? How do we use the land around us? Have we ever been through consultations like what this community is going through?

I find that telling my story almost always leads to one key understanding: we have much more in common than we do in difference. Establishing our shared values is the first step toward breaking down barriers and forming trust—the foundation of any strong relationship. Meaningful relationship-building not only improves collaboration efforts, but it also enhances the design and construction process. Everyone benefits from knowledge sharing, and when communication is executed in the right way, we all win.

A community meeting for the Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan Final Consultation in Mayo, Yukon.

Evolving technology leads to changing opportunities

One of the most interesting things about working with Indigenous Peoples—particularly in the Mining industry—is the impact of evolving technology. As the industry continues to feel the effects of technological innovation, labor demands are changing. The need for mine workers swinging a pickax is decreasing. Why? Because mines are using technology to do the heavy lifting now—they need their workers to operate technology. If we adapt to these changes in the right way, we can present a great opportunity for Indigenous youth.

While at the AME conference, I sat in a discussion that focused on a youth field program in my home community that one of the panelists had recently developed. The program is geared toward the Tahltan First Nation in British Columbia and encouraging Tahltan youth to return to the land. This is a long-standing challenge within Indigenous communities: young people tend to leave. Usually, to find work.

But what if they found meaningful work in their communities? Would that be enough for them to return? If they gain a higher level of education in the field or pursue post-secondary education, would they return to use these skills to benefit their peoples? That is the goal.

From a personal point of view, programs like this help to build capacity within my community. They can offer tangible ways for our youth to work on their own lands. For me and my colleagues, this is also invaluable. Having members of my nation involved in the Mining industry is a great step toward local economic development—and it helps to strengthen the community.

Salmon hanging at Jamie’s family’s fish camp in Telegraph Creek, British Columbia.

Integrating traditional knowledge with Western science

What’s one of the coolest concepts about working with Indigenous communities? The importance of integrating the traditional knowledge of Indigenous Peoples with contemporary Western science. Traditional knowledge refers to the wisdom passed down from generation to generation through the art of storytelling, such as traditional medicine or hunting and gathering practices in the fall. Western knowledge, on the other hand, relies on modern science and quantitative evidence to generate understanding. The use of aspirin in pill form is a great instance of harmonizing these two knowledge systems, as Indigenous people have long used willow tree bark for pain relief.

Traditional knowledge stems as a result of a strong connection to the land. And a large aspect of traditional knowledge is the accumulated understanding of the relationship between people and the natural environment—as well as the use of natural resources. Respecting these values is crucial to Indigenous communities. For example, mining companies operating on traditional territories must work to return the land to its original state. This way, when the land is fully reclaimed, the original users can return. Land reclamation is one way to help ensure that traditional knowledge is maintained and preserved by Indigenous knowledge keepers.

I’ve really put thought into exploring how the mining industry can incorporate traditional knowledge into their practices. Responsible resource development means consulting with communities. It means understanding that highly sensitive and culturally important areas sustain traditional knowledge and land uses. It means meaningful community engagement throughout a project’s development.

Heading forward, I hope to use everything I’ve learned to support the development of Indigenous communities in the north. I will continue to learn and integrate traditional knowledge, to understand the changing opportunities in the industry, and to build meaningful relationships with Indigenous Peoples.

  • Jamie Davignon

    A civil and environmental engineer in training, Jamie has focused her work on water and wastewater infrastructure and asset management.

    Contact Jamie
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