A coal company and a British Columbia First Nation have reached an unusual agreement to give the community the power to veto a proposed mining project, which could set a precedent for how natural resource projects are developed in Canada.

NWP Coal Canada and Yaq̓it ʔa knuqⱡi’it (YQT), also known as the Tobacco Plains Indian Band, describe the agreement as unique, saying it will give the First Nation the power to act as “regulator and reviewer”. of the company’s proposed $400 million Crown Mountain coal mine near Elkford in the southeastern part of the province.

The mine would produce coking coal, which is used efficiently to make steel. The project was first proposed in 2010 and construction could begin in 2025. Federal and provincial regulators are currently reviewing the potential environmental impacts of the project.

For the mine to proceed, the project will not only need federal and provincial approval, but will now require permission from YQT.

“For too long, indigenous nations have not been brought to the table in decisions that directly affect our rights and interests,” YQT chief Heidi Gravelle said in a statement.

“We look forward to working with NWP and regulators as we exercise our full seat at the table as decision makers in our own territories.”

Relationships have evolved

Natural resource companies are required to consult indigenous communities on large-scale development projects, but this deal could be innovative as it gives the local community veto power to reject the proposal outright.

“The industry often acts like the veto power of indigenous peoples is scary, and what we think is if they’re the ancestral title holders, if they’re the people with the most rights in the area, we should treat them like a government.” . said Dave Baines, director of project development for NWP Coal Canada.

“Yes, it’s scary, but we’re brave enough to say that we think we can earn your ‘yes’ and we’re going to work with you to get that ‘yes’.”

Smokestacks emit fumes at a coal mining facility, in the middle distance.  In the background are mountains with specks of snow.
A coal mining operation is shown in Sparwood, BC, in 2016. In recent years, Canadian regulators and courts have required more consultation with indigenous communities, while giving those local communities more power over the development of the natural resources. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The relationship between the industry and indigenous communities has evolved in recent decades. Companies often enter into benefit agreements that can provide jobs, training, contracts, and housing to a community, among other measures.

Baines, who previously worked at the oil field, described in an interview with CBC News how such benefit deals are similar to buying the support of a First Nation, in that compensation is provided only if the First Nation provides support.

He said the companies are basically asking the community to “bury their concerns.”

Baines described how indigenous consultation in the past was usually summed up in the last chapter of a regulatory application on a new project, saying “we talked to them.”

The deal with YQT is different, he said, in that “we’re inviting them to the table and saying we want them at that table, we want their opinion, we want them to say yes or no.”

“It’s a big change, so we know it will put pressure on industry peers. I hope I don’t get too much hate mail,” Baines said.

‘I think I might start a previous’

NWP is owned by Australia-based Jameson Resources and New Zealand-based Bathurst Resources. If the deal goes ahead, the company could also sign an equity or benefits deal with YQT in the future. The company is also in consultation with other First Nations and Métis communities in the area.

“I think it’s important,” said Dale Swampy, a member of the Samson Cree Nation in Alberta and president of the National Coalition of Chiefs, a group that promotes indigenous participation in resource development.

“I think it could start an earlier,” he said.

Dale Swampy, president of the National Coalition of Chiefs, says the consultation process in Canada is not clearly defined and there is no specific method for determining which communities will be affected by a proposed project. (Lives Many Wounds/CBC)

The consultation process in Canada is not clearly defined, Swampy said, and there isn’t even a specific method for determining which communities will be affected by a proposed project.

Elevating a First Nation to regulatory status is a unique opportunity, said Anne Harding, owner of Forum Community Relations, a Calgary-based consulting firm focused on indigenous relations.

“That continuous monitoring is something that nations have been looking for for a long time and I haven’t seen it before,” he said.

Veto power over a proposed bill also has “enormous potential,” Harding said. “It’s really exciting because it recognizes indigenous rights from the very beginning.”

CLOCK | What it means for indigenous communities to have veto power:

What it means for indigenous communities to have veto power

Allowing communities to make decisions about development in their region and act as a regulator of resource projects brings new opportunities, says Anne Harding, an indigenous relations consultant.

In recent years, Canadian regulators and courts have called for more consultation with indigenous communities, while giving those local communities more power over natural resource development.

In 2018, a ruling by the Federal Court of Appeals halted construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline project on the concerns, the federal government’s consultation was too passive and not seen as meaningful engagement to understand the concerns.

In 2021, a judgment of the Supreme Court of British Columbia supported the claim of a Northeast BC First Nation that too much development in the region was affecting their right to hunt, fish, and trap without interference. Blueberry River officials said the ruling gave the community decision-making power over land regarding future development.

In recent years, some large natural resource companies have offered an ownership interest in projects with indigenous groups. Some community leaders say it’s an important step toward achieving economic self-sufficiency.

NWP’s Baines described “enormous challenges” in consulting in recent years with YQT, which is part of the much larger Ktunaxa Nation, because trust needed to be rebuilt.

In 2021, Ktunaxa petitioned the provincial and federal governments to halt all new projects and proposed expansions in the area because the impacts of existing mining had “exceeded acceptable levels” for the community’s cultural rights and practices.

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