Corporate Counsel: First Nations assert rights
"Last summer, after almost two decades of planning and construction, De Beers Canada Inc. finally opened the Victor diamond mine in the James Bay Lowlands in northern Ontario. One of the most time-consuming aspects of the project: the negotiations that De Beers had to conduct with the Attawapiskat First Nation, the Aboriginal community that owns the land where the mine is located. (Aboriginal is the term used in Canada to refer to the country's native population; the First Nations are the people known in the United States as Indians or Native Americans.)

R. Martin Bayer, one of De Beers' outside lawyers, says the company had to take some unusual factors into account during its discussions with the Attawapiskat and other Aboriginal groups near the mine site. For example, Bayer had to make sure that meetings didn't take place during the communities' traditional activities, such as the annual spring goose hunt.

"The point I wanted to make to our company officials is that when that happens, the community members will just stop everything they are doing to go on the land and hunt, because they rely on the geese for food and clothing," says Bayer. An attorney with the law firm of Weaver, Simmons in Sudbury, Ontario, Bayer himself was raised in an Aboriginal community, the M'Chigeeng First Nation. His background gives him the ability "to understand the unique aspirations and expectations of our own people," he says.

It was important that De Beers showed that it would respect the rights that the Aboriginal communities had been granted in their treaties with the Canadian government, Bayer adds. "This is exactly what we are talking about -- people are out on the land practicing their treaty right to hunt their geese." The company tried to be sensitive in other ways, such as not flying helicopters during the bird nesting season, and seeing that construction of power lines did not harm traditional medicinal plants. Bayer says that he tried to get the Aboriginal groups to understand that De Beers had priorities of its own. "First Nations need to know that at the end of the day, these businesses are there to make money, and there are often timing and scheduling issues that companies need to meet."

The careful strategy paid off for De Beers. In 1999 it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Attawapiskat; six years later the community voted overwhelmingly to approve the Victor project. Work on the mine began the following year, and production started this past July. More than 1,000 First Nations residents were employed during construction, and about 300 have been employed since Victor started operating. The mine is expected to yield 600,000 carats annually during its 12-year lifespan."

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As Canada's Native Peoples Assert Rights, Companies Make Concessions (Corporate Counsel 1/7)