Northern Ontario|First Nations and Mining Industry: Cross-Cultural Teaching and Respect

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Martin Millen is a traditional healer from the Timmins area. Six years ago he received a call from an Aboriginal liaison person from Porcupine Gold Mines – a subsidiary of Goldcorp Canada Ltd., on the matter of a moose that had become trapped and subsequently died in one of their open pit mines.

“What do we do?” She asked. To which Millen replied, “There is a reason why that moose went into that pit. There’s a message for us. That message is related to what we are doing to the environment in Timmins. That message is how mining is impacting the habitat of the wildlife and the movement of these animals.”

Millen attended the site and performed a ceremony to honour the moose. Following the observance Millen was sitting in the Goldcorp boardroom to discuss what could be done to prevent a recurrence of a similar situation when he noticed a map of all the tailing sites throughout the Timmins and Treaty 9 area left behind from over one hundred years of mining.

“When I first looked at their tailings map it really dawned on me, as a traditional practitioner, that there were potential risks for traditional harvesting practices in an urban centre. Especially for people that aren’t familiar with the area who come from coastal communities for education. They may take a walk in the back of the bush in Timmins to pick their medicines or to harvest berries, Labrador tea or to hunt small rabbits or partridge. And they may not understand the scope of the potential hazardous risks from mining.”

What Are Tailings?

“Tailings consist of ground rock and process effluents that are generated in a mine processing plant. Mechanical and chemical processes are used to extract the desired product from the run of the mine ore and produce a waste stream known as tailings. This process of product extraction is never 100% efficient, nor is it possible to reclaim all reusable and expended processing reagents and chemicals. The unrecoverable and uneconomic metals, minerals, chemicals, organics and process water are discharged, normally as slurry, to a final storage area commonly known as a Tailings Management Facility (TMF) or Tailings Storage Facility (TSF). Not surprisingly the physical and chemical characteristics of tailings and their methods of handling and storage are of great and growing concern.”

Millen recognized that there was also a prime opportunity for cross-cultural teaching and respect.

“What could be a better place to understand how mining affects urban populations? My message to Goldcorp about mitigating further risks to wildlife, the environment and people, was to build a relationship with the First Nations.”

Goldcorp agreed and Millen scoured the country to bring together a group of Elders that could advise how to restore the land. “The Elders sole purpose are to work with people and heal them in traditional ways. But I explained that land was making people sick, that our medicine was being picked in toxic areas and so they came.”

The group of Elders refer to themselves as ‘AMAK’, short for Anishanaabe Maamwaye Aki Kiigeyewin Institute which means ‘all the people coming together to heal the earth’.

Millen, the Elders and Goldcorp sought a common place to begin the teaching and learning. The Coniaurum reclamation site presented the perfect setting to come together.

Coniaurum Gold Mine

“The Coniaurum gold mine operated from 1913 until 1961 when a serious storm caused a breach in the tailings dams, causing a discharge and the shutdown of the operation. Goldcorp’s subsidiary, Porcupine Gold Mines, took ownership of the property in 2002. Reclamation began on the Coniaurum tailings which includes a 58-ha impound in 2005. Work was carried out to stabilize existing erosion channels, depression areas were filled, and biosolids were applied and topped with wild seed mix to promote vegetation growth.

The results of this work have stabilized the site, stopped suspended solids from the tailings area entering the Porcupine River and promoted other uses of the property. The use of biosolids as a cover and wild grasses promoted a self-sustaining environment, which encouraged the growth of other natural grass, shrub and tree species. This in turn has attracted wildlife, including several black bears. Honey bees were introduced in 2008 to promote additional pollination and plant development. This in turn has spawned into a greater number of healthy bee colonies and a budding honey industry.”

Since first establishing the Coniaurum reclamation site as a place for healing and learning, a teepee, sweat lodge and talking lodge have been located on site. “Those particular lodges are the original institutions for the Anishinaabe in the Treaty 9 territory,” commented Millen.

AMAK have hosted gatherings with corporate big wigs as well as university students from Queens University and the University of Waterloo. “The engineering students come up to visit the Coniaurum site. I speak with them about the work that we are doing and ask them to understand that engineering isn’t just about blueprints. It is also about understanding that what they are creating has a cause and effect on the environment, the water and the ecosystems. They aren’t taught about that in their engineering courses,” ruminated Millen.

Over the next five years, AMAK is hoping to design a cross-cultural relationship building model that could be adapted to enhance just about any First Nations and industry interaction. “We’re looking at how we can apply cross-cultural knowledge on the ground and with operations and where it can be incorporated into land use practices. We want our culture, our heritage sites and our values to be protected.”

So what are Millen’s thoughts about the mining industry as a whole?

“We don’t like what it does to the environment but we also see it as a necessary. When you look at the mines and what they provide to society as a whole, whether you’re aboriginal or not, it provides Canadian coffers, jobs, training and the industry gives back to the community through their Corporate Social Responsibility mandates. I’ve learned that natural resources are shared among the people whether you are aboriginal or not. We are evolving as human beings and we move forward. First Nations cannot go back four hundred years and live on the land and live in the bush the way we did at one time. This is why I believe that we do need to come together, educate ourselves on the facts and make good decisions so that we minimize our footprint, so that we take the best care of our land and water for future generations.

The story with AMAK and Goldcorp is that we are developing a relationship to better understand how we can do safe mining today and in the future. How do we clean up these sites that are still leeching into our natural environment? That’s the point. That’s the highlight. If we don’t do that…well what industry is going to do that? None. We need a story that helps people to be encouraged. That’s where it starts. With the conversation and with the relationship building. And that’s what we’re doing.”

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*Editors Note: Martin Millen was a keynote speaker this week at the Algoma University Land Management, Planning & Use Symposium: Gdo Amiiminaan Ganawendandaan (Taking Care of Our Land). The symposium was organized in partnership with the Anishinaabe Initiatives Division and the Department of Geography and Geology at AUC. The purpose of the symposium was to “begin exploring through research and best practices, the inclusion of cultural and traditional practices of land management, planning and use for Aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario.

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