PERSPECTIVE: Innovative CSR solutions for troubled Attawapiskat
Older CMJ readers will remember how the mining companies built remote projects in the middle of the last century. First they found and explored a deposit far from civilization. Next they made a development decision that included building a local town for the workforce. They moved their employees and their families into the town. When the ore ran out, the company moved on leaving the town with little or no economic basis for survival.
Thankfully, we now have better development model, one that does not abandon towns when mining ceases. Modern miners have invented what the Australians call FIFO, meaning fly-in/fly-out operations. We in Canada were pioneers in this practice. Workers are flown to the mine site for periods ranging from days to weeks. They are put up in modern accommodations, well fed, and given plenty of recreational opportunities. Then they fly out, returning to families and homes in usually in the south. Their families enjoy the amenities of city living including educational and employment opportunities. Such opportunities were lacking in small northern mining towns.
The FIFO model works well in developed countries, but it is not appropriate in undeveloped regions. Indigenous peoples in Africa and South America, for instance, do not want to leave their homes for extended periods or they wish to continue their traditional way of living. Canadian miners have again become leaders in the art of giving such people an economic or educational hand up without destroying their culture.
On the west side of James Bay, the same applies to the village of Attawapiskat, ON. Last fall and winter the plight of its residents was labeled as “Third World” in the daily press, and not without cause. Some were living in uninsulated shacks as the bitter winter set in. Full employment was impossible, the school was second rate, and most of the town lacked clean water.
Fingers were pointed. First at the federal government for allowing Canadian citizens to live in this country in such squalid and hopeless conditions. Then fingers were leveled at De Beers Canada, operator of the Victor diamond mine 90 km to the west. People were asking how a world class mine could be developed and the local communities not benefit economically. Why wasn’t De Beers fixing Attawapiskat?
About 40% of the Victor workforce is Aboriginal, including some from Attawapiskat. And the company has always been willing to lend a helping hand in ways that will improve local communities, but that help is practical, not monetary. De Beers helped local people set up business to service the mine. For example a trucking company might have been founded to carry supplies to the mine over the winter road, but the trucker can also sell its services to other companies in the area, and there are several active mineral exploration projects.
Let’s get back to De Beers and Attawapiskat. Here are a couple examples of the tangible aid the mining company has govern to the village recently as compiled by the Ontario Mining Association:
De Beers maintained 370 km of winter roads, part of which were used to deliver new housing to the village. More than 200 First Nation employees with local community contractors were hired to build and maintain the roads.
The company donated more than 1,000 tonnes of rock to be used in the foundation of a new elementary school. The material was waste rock from the Victor pit; it was crushed at the mine site and trucked to Attawapiskat.
Just as a solid foundation is needed for a school, so has De Beers given its support to create local economic opportunities.