Ring of Fire: can struggling First Nations workers prepare in time?

FORT HOPE FIRST NATION, Ont. – Roland Okeese is watching with keen interest as mining companies from around the world stake claims in the area around his remote northern Ontario reserve.

The 36-year-old father of six and grandfather of two is in his prime — strong, healthy and hopeful for a new career supporting the mining activity in the Ring of Fire.

For Okeese and so many other community members, however, the path from here to there is difficult.

Okeese knows the wild country well. He’s good with a power saw. He has a few months’ experience doing contract work for Noront Resources.

But for much of his adult life, he was wrestling with an addiction to the prescription painkiller OxyContin. He didn’t graduate from high school. And his formal training is minimal.

“I’d like for the (mining) to happen. I’d choose to be working,” he says defiantly, recognizing that some in his community don’t share his view. “But I don’t have the skills.”

It’s a problem that needs to be resolved soon if a local workforce is to benefit fully from the mining activity poised to take off in the Ring of Fire.

Indeed, there is a newly formed consensus among federal and provincial officials, native communities and major companies that aggressive training programs need to be set in place now.

“We’re worried about that because I don’t think it’s too early to get started even right now,” says Bill Boor, senior vice-president of global ferroalloys for Cliffs Natural Resources, a multi-national mining company that wants to go into production in 2016 or 2017.

“We need a lot of employees for this type of operation. … We’re very anxious to get started.”

The experience of Attawapiskat and the de Beer’s Victor diamond mine is proving instructive for all parties. Attawapiskat First Nation is on the northern side of the Ring of Fire development. While Victor has a large aboriginal workforce, the Attawapiskat community frequently complains that it doesn’t get its share of the bounty from the mine.

A federal review of the relationship between Victor and Attawapiskat shows that government support for training and capacity did not start soon enough to deal with the huge lack of skills in the First Nation.

This time, all sides say they want to do it right — and that means starting now.

Toronto-based Noront, which wants to open a nickel mine, is in the midst of forming a coalition with the drilling program at a college in nearby Thunder Bay, and looking at ways to bring the training programs into local communities so that potential workers don’t need to travel far from home.

The company aims to have a third of its workforce requirements filled by local aboriginal workers, far higher than the national mining-sector average of about eight per cent, says Leanne Hall, Noront’s vice-president of human resources.

While Grade 12 is usually a basic requirement for any job even distantly related to mining, Hall says her company is considering training options that would take life experience and traditional knowledge into account.

That would probably be good news for Okeese, who says he has kicked his addiction and knows the vast forests and waterways as if they were his own backyard.

“I’m good at how to survive in the bush,” he says.

Cliffs is taking a different approach, talking to First Nations about pre-development agreements that would map out a framework for getting communities ready for eventual mining, and would serve to bring First Nations officials up to speed before they get into more formal negotiations for impact-benefit agreements.

Government, too, appears to be gearing up to put the necessary tools into place.

While there is no rule requiring any company to hire from local First Nations, employment is likely to be part of the benefit agreements they negotiate with the mining companies operating in their traditional lands.

And it often makes business sense, since First Nations peoples feel at home in the wild, remote area 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, and are likely to stick around.

But more often than not, the older generation on the Ring of Fire reserves says the younger generation has checked out, overwhelmed by poverty, poor education, nothing to do and the temptations of addictive drugs.

Janet Coaster lives in a small house with nine or 10 other people on the Marten Falls reserve, near the Ring of Fire, and has heard a bit about the mining development. Coaster works as a hall monitor at the local school, and she wants her kids to find work too.

She is keeping watch for potential training programs, but she knows her kids have to finish school if they want a decent position in the future.

“I hope they get their education and a proper job,” she says.

So far, though, her 14-year-old gave up after a few months of being away from home in Thunder Bay for high school. And her 18-year-old, Alison, says she is taking a year off from school to take care of her new baby Andrew.

Her plans for the future? She hasn’t thought that through.

Their chief, Eli Moonias, tells a story about fish that have spent generations in an aquarium. Even when the glass is removed, they continue tread water.

“The reserve is kind of like that. It’s dangerous conditioning,” he says. “It creates a dangerous bottleneck.”