The Oujé-Bougoumou Cree Nation and the Grand Council of the Crees/Cree Regional Authority (GCC/CRA) signed an Impact Benefit Agreement June 20 with BlackRock Metals Inc., opening the way for an open-pit mine in Oujé territory. Known as the BallyHusky Agreement, the deal will allow extraction of iron ore and vanadium, which is used to produce specialty steel alloys.

The Oujé Band Council announced community approval of the project in late May. The GCC followed with formal support in early June once it had established that BlackRock would ensure a stable regional environment for the development and operation of the project.

According to GCC/CRA negotiator Abel Bosum, serious talks for this project began in January after an agreement was reached to allow the Crees to monitor the pre-development activities of BlackRock. This ensured that Crees could benefit from associated employment and business opportunities.

From this point on in, Bosum said that business proceeded without a hitch.

“Taking advantage of the experience gained by the Crees on similar agreements, we were able to conclude the BallyHusky Agreement fairly quickly. Throughout, BlackRock actually did a good job of accommodating Oujé-Bougoumou concerns and they always tried to find solutions to those concerns. We quickly established a collaborative relationship which allowed us to build the agreement together,” said Bosum.

According to Bosum, the agreement will create funds to support training programs, new Cree businesses and to preserve and enhance Cree culture and traditional activities. It also outlines the Cree role in environmental monitoring during and after the life of the project. Finally, the agreement ensures that the Crees will receive financial benefits through different payment mechanisms and participation in the profitability of the mine.

Iron-ore extraction will serve as the mine’s primary goal with vanadium mining serving as a secondary function. Bosum emphasized that every necessary precaution will be taken by BlackRock to ensure environmental protection.

“The environmental management system for the project will be developed in collaboration with the Cree parties. Moreover, the Crees will be intimately involved in the environmental monitoring of the project. The Crees will also have the opportunity to identify environmental indicators that they want monitored. Finally, the Crees will be involved in the development and implementation of the rehabilitation and restoration plan required under the (Cree) Mining Act. It is also our understanding that very little of the ore processing will take place at the mine site,” explained Bosum.

According to Oujé-Bougoumou Chief Reggie Neeposh, the community is comfortable with the deal because members were given the necessary latitude to express their environmental concerns. Members also played a major role to ensure the community would benefit from economic spinoffs. This, he says, was all made possible by the CGG/CRA’s Cree Mining Act.

“In the past a lot of the companies would just do away with speaking to the people that occupy the land,” said Neeposh. “A company will just start out their mining exploration, go about it and before you know it, there is a mine. With the new mining policy the companies are now informed that they must talk to the stakeholders of the land prior to doing any development.”

While Neeposh acknowledged the environmental concerns of both Natives and non-Natives, he said the company was able to demonstrate how it would be conducting the onsite drainage and how it would be purifying the water prior to releasing it back into the watershed.

The development is taking place on the traditional territory of the Wapachee family. “The sad part is the loss of the land for the family,” Neeposh observed. “It is now up to between 60-80% of the family’s territory that has been claimed for forestry and mining projects.”

It is for this reason that there is already discussion within the community to share meat with the Wapachees who cannot hunt on their land and also to take family members out on other traplines.

At the same time, Neeposh explained that it was by actually engaging the family in the consultation process that made a huge difference. One family member worked on the contamination file while another, Norman Wapachee, served as a consultant on the project.

According to Norman Wapachee, 110 family members share the large traditional territory. But Chibougamau cottagers, forestry operations, three mining developments and a possible wind farm are eating away at the territory.

“My fear is that our way of life will be altered forever by development and the concern becomes where do we go? We need a land base to be able to continue to hunt and trap,” said Wapachee.

However, Wapachee said that he was able to take a page from his own father, Matthew, when it came to working with development. Matthew Wapachee dealt with the former Campbell mine operators and Norman was able to observe the French and English in the territory who worked there.

Norman said his father would hunt when he wasn’t working and then line cut to be able to provide for his family (all 12 natural children and two adopted daughters).

Because there was no consultation with the families being impacted at that time or the Cree, the end result was contamination as the mining laws were very lenient.

And so when it came to BlackRock, Wapachee said that his father was quite concerned as he had seen so much carelessness on the behalf of the Campbell mine. Recent clean-up efforts at the Campbell mine site helped ease those worries.

“My dad was always protective of the land when it came to hunting and fishing and his way of life. The people of Chibougamau too expressed concern and he said that we needed to work together with them on this. He always said that resource development activities could be compatible with the Cree way of life,” said Wapachee.

And, through careful negotiations with various family members, Wapachee said that the environmental impact of the project was significantly reduced. For instance, the volume of road development was cut by 40% from the original plan. The number of impacted watersheds was reduced three down to one. Progressive restoration will also see some areas of the land restored while the project is still in operation.

According to Wapachee, the fact that Bosum sat down with the family to help them understand each part of the agreement prior to its signing made an enormous difference when it came to making or breaking this deal.