The Tłı̨chǫ Government says it no-showed Tuesday’s signing of a socio-economic agreement for a proposed mine near Whatì as it has reservations about the content and was given too little time to analyze the document.
On Tuesday, the territorial government and Fortune Minerals said signing the agreement was an important step for Fortune’s NICO property, which it hopes to soon turn into an operational cobalt, gold, bismuth, and copper mine.
However, while the document instructs the mine to prioritize the hiring of Tłı̨chǫ workers, the Tłı̨chǫ Government said in a statement it had “fundamental concerns … as relates to the employment and hiring targets and the interaction of the agreement with Tłı̨chǫ rights.”
The statement did not go into detail regarding specific grievances, except to state the length of time afforded to the Tłı̨chǫ to review the NICO agreement was inadequate.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government said it had “serious concerns with the substance and the process to develop the agreement,” adding its leaders had deliberately chosen not to attend Tuesday’s signing ceremony in protest.
One territorial MLA, Kieron Testart, termed the agreement’s signing – and what amounted to a Tłı̨chǫ boycott – “How not to do nation-to-nation relations with Indigenous governments.”
In a brief statement, the territorial government said it “remains committed to working with our partners, including Indigenous governments, to ensure the NWT residents benefit from mining in our territory.”
Earlier in the week, Fortune Minerals president Robin Goad told the CBC: “Our relationship has always been strong with the Tłı̨chǫ.
“We meet with the Tłı̨chǫ regularly. We have Tłı̨chǫ people that work for our company and always have been working on the project.”
‘At the last hour’
Socio-economic agreements are negotiated between the territorial government and mining companies, but are usually designed to benefit primarily Indigenous communities in the vicinity of mines – who might otherwise lose out on employment and benefits, while seeing their traditional land exploited.
Five such agreements, including this one, currently exist between the territory and different mining companies.
However, in its statement on Wednesday, the Tłı̨chǫ Government said the NICO agreement “is inconsistent with the Tłı̨chǫ Agreement [a land claims and self-government agreement signed in 2003] and is inconsistent with the forthcoming NWT Mineral Resources Act.”
The statement focused on the time given to the Tłı̨chǫ to examine the NICO agreement.
“Despite continued requests – over the course of a month – to review and understand the agreement they were being asked to witness, a copy was not provided to the Tłı̨chǫ Government until the afternoon of January 28, 2019, only hours before the signing,” the statement read.
The territorial government did not contest that assertion in its brief response, emailed to reporters later on Wednesday.
“The Tłı̨chǫ should be primary,” said Grand Chief George Mackenzie within his government’s statement.
“We hear this information at the last hour. We are very disappointed with the GNWT and Fortune Minerals and how they conducted their business on this particular issue.”
Statements of intent
Socio-economic agreements rarely carry significant legal weight or severe penalties for mine operators who do not meet the conditions they contain.
Indeed, the NICO agreement is expressly written to convey that Fortune Minerals will try hard to meet the targets included – such as 30 percent Indigenous employment while the mine is operational – but Fortune is not compelled to forfeit anything if the target is missed.
This makes the agreements essentially statements of good intent, demonstrating mine operators’ commitment to hiring northern residents and contracting northern businesses.
However, their signing can be used by companies and governments to show progress as a new mine is developed.
Fortune Minerals is trying to raise the money to build the NICO project – and a spur road to the new all-season Whatì highway, which the territorial government is about to build – while the NWT is at the Roundup mineral exploration conference in Vancouver, trying to coax investors north.
Showing off a new socio-economic agreement with a mining company is one way for the government to advertise the NWT being open for business.
The NICO mine could be operational by the early 2020s if all goes to plan for Fortune Minerals, with cobalt newly in-vogue as a material used in batteries for electric vehicles.
If built and opened, the mine is forecast to last for two decades.
At a second Vancouver signing ceremony, on Wednesday, the Nahanni Butte Dene Band and Norzinc signed an impact benefit agreement – a similar deal, designed to offset the impacts of mining with commensurate benefits for the local community – for Norzinc’s prospective Prairie Creek Mine in the Dehcho.
Roundup, which has seen almost every NWT cabinet member travel to Vancouver this week, is perceived by ministers as a vital platform for the enticing of fresh blood into the territory’s economy.
However, others have complained about the $200,000-plus price tag associated with sending several dozen people south to the event.
Last year, a committee of MLAs appeared set to look into the NWT’s presence at Roundup and subsequently evaluate the trip’s value for money.
Kam Lake MLA Testart – a member of the committee – this week told Cabin Radio no such evaluation had yet taken place.
“The escalating costs of the GNWT’s participation in these conferences has been a source of public concern and I believe it is a worthwhile exercise for the committee to evaluate the costs and benefits,” said Testart.
“However, my opinion is a minority on the committee and this year, as with the last time, regular members are attending on their own and will not be offering a substantial report on the Roundup conference.
“I believe that the GNWT ought to be present at Roundup and other industry conferences. Where I disagree is the scale of the delegation and the involvement of the entire cabinet.”
Despite bailing on Tuesday’s signing ceremony, the Tłı̨chǫ Government concluded its statement by asserting its members “will be at Roundup for the rest of the week and [are] very interested to hold dialogues with exploration companies in the region.”