Skii km Lax Ha First Nation and Pretium Resources

The Skii km Lax Ha people identify themselves as descendants of the Raven Clan of the Laxwiiyiip. Laxwiiyiip means “on the prairie” and refers to their territory on the plateau at the magnificent headwaters of the Nass, Stikine and Skeena Rivers. The traditional territory of the Skii km Lax Ha is approximately 19,800 square kilometres and features mountains, rivers, lakes, and prairie. The Skii km Lax Ha are descendants of the nomadic Tsetsaut tribe, which only put down roots after European contact, in the late 1800s. The Skii km Lax Ha have always hunted, trapped and fished and followed a traditional life. The nearest villages are Hazleton and New Hazelton.

In 2008, Chief Darlene Simpson and her husband George Simpson formed a contracting company, Tsetsaut Ventures Ltd, and began knocking on the doors of the exploration companies working in the Skii km Lax Ha traditional territory.

The Skii km Lax Ha First Nation is 30 members strong.

Pretium Resources

Pretium Resources is the 100% owner of the Brucejack project which lies in what is known as the Golden Triangle, so called due to the great geological potential of several world class mineral deposits in the region. In recognition of the untapped gold and copper resources of the Golden Triangle, Canada’s federal government and British Columbia’s provincial government sponsored a $736 million transmission line to be run from Terrace into the heart of the triangle.

The Brucejack Project is the highest-grade, undeveloped large-scale gold project in the world today. The company plans to take the project into production as a 2,700 tonnes-per-day underground gold mine. The Project is currently at the permitting stage, and Pretium expects to receive the environmental assessment certificate in late 2014/early 2015. The construction phase is expected to be about 18 months, with the mine commissioning expected in 2016.

The Background

In 1999, Silver Standard Inc. acquired Newhawk Gold Mines and its Brucejack and Snowfield projects. The projects had been dormant for a period of time until Silver Standard began working on the Snowfield project in 2006. In 2009, Tsetsaut Ventures approached Silver Standard about providing services such as core boxes and personnel. In 2009 and 2010, the services offered by Tsetsaut Ventures increased as Tsetsaut increased its capacity. In 2010, Silver Standard sold the property to Pretium Resources Inc – a company formed by Robert Quartermain, formerly President of Silver Standard (he retired from Silver Standard) expressly to purchase these two projects.

“When Pretium took over the projects, I think the Skii km Lax Ha were relieved and pleased to see so many of the management from Silver Standard move into Pretium,” says Robert Quartermain, President and Chief Executive Officer and Director, Pretium. The relationship between the company, the Nation and Tsetsaut Ventures continued seamlessly and continued to grow as did the capacity of Tsetsaut Ventures.

Through Tsetsaut Ventures, the First Nation supplies trucks, excavators, earthmovers, manages work camps, builds core boxes, constructs mine buildings, provides cooks, First Aid attendants, geo-technicians and environmental monitors; 60 percent of the Tsetsaut Ventures employees are Indigenous. They have, in a nutshell, become the largest employer – of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people – in the Hazelton region, which is very good news as the Hazelton has one of the highest unemployment rates in the province.

The fledgling company had to “ramp up” fast. “We knocked on their doors and had a meeting with Silver Standard. They agreed to hire us and we were quite excited. Then one day we got a call that they needed 11 people for manual core cracking so we were scrambling but between my husband and I we had eight children so that was over half of the requirement just there. We live on the Gitanmaax reserve and there are nine First Nation villages around us so we can put the kids, the 18 year olds, out to work. We look for young adults with high energy. The project manager demanded they do 20 boxes a day, which is what the best core crackers on site were doing – our kids were doing up to 40 boxes a day within a week, setting a new standard in the camp,” says Chief Simpson. “We come from communities with the highest unemployment and the highest suicide rate but with the most competitive spirit. The nine villages are always competing against one another in sports.”

“In 2012, we had some 200 people on site and 20 per cent would have been First Nation, provided by Tsetsaut Ventures, and they were drawing from a pool of about 200 workers. Their capacity evolved from 2008, when they provided core boxes, to 2013 when they were providing heavy equipment, doing construction and providing a lot of skilled workers to us,” says Quartermain.

Michelle Romero, Vice President, Corporate Relations, commented that “Tsetsaut Ventures has very much grown up alongside us, which I think is unique. They have been integral to the development of this project and we would not be where we are if it were not for them.”

The contracting agreements between Tsetsaut Ventures and Pretium are all verbal, sealed with a handshake. “At the beginning of every year we sit down, have a discussion, shake hands and that’s how we’ve been doing business for six years now. Now we are starting to move towards formal agreements related to IBAs etc. but it is a shame because the handshake is something we are very proud of and I think Pretium is very proud of – to do as much business as we have on a handshake shows mutual respect,” says Simpson.

To build capacity as a contracting company requires adding equipment. Chief Simpson and her husband ploughed every cent they made back into the company but sometimes a really significant purchase required a serious amount of capital that they did not have. They asked Pretium to loan them the money which they promised to pay back in two months. Pretium agreed to guarantee a loan to them of $300,000 on a handshake, the equipment was purchased and the loan repaid within the promised timeframe.

When there is a need for meetings dealing with the permitting process, Quartermain or Pretium’s Executive VP Joe Ovsenek have formal meetings with Chief Simpson and the community; when there is a need to meet over contracting issues, then Ovsenek meets with the Chief and George Simpson; Ovsenek speaks almost daily with Simpson. “We have always met with upper management, never had to deal with an Indigenous consultation person, or anybody down the chain with Pretium,” says Simpson.

The Skii km Lax Ha are concerned for their traditional territory and traditional activities but understand that the Brucejack project has a very small environmental footprint. The proposed mine would only have a total surface disturbance of between eight to 10 hectares, and although up to 50 per cent of the mine’s tailings would be piped into nearby Brucejack Lake, the lake has no fish as there is a 200 meter cascade 20 kilometers downstream that acts as a fish barrier.

“We continue to work with the Skii km Lax Ha on what the impacts will be but they certainly have an understanding of the benefits first hand to them and their community from the relationship we have with them. Because the contracting company has provided so many of the necessary services required to develop the project, the Skii km Lax Ha Nation has been involved in process every step of the way. It is one where commercial interests of a First Nation complement those of the leadership as it relates to the ongoing development of this project,” says Quartermain.

The downside of having a successful contracting company is the lack of time available to go out on the land and pursue a traditional life. “That is a balance I have come to accept. I am giving something up and it’s tough for me, but benefits the broader community” says Chief Simpson.

When asked about the impact of having mineral exploration and mining in their territory Chief Simpson responded with “This is new for our community but I see the benefits to our community. The individuals want an opportunity to work. Having jobs makes it a healthier community, you see more kids in sports, you see people buying vehicles and homes. It is becoming a healthier community which is often not the case with an influx of money. The difference with our community is, because we have that competitive history, it means the parents finally have the funds to enroll their kids in sports, in hockey, take them to town for swimming. They now have an opportunity to give their children something; they are spending their money this way. We also have young adults working at the mine site who are supporting their parents.”

Darlene Simpson Skii km Lax Ha

Strengths Pretium brings to the relationship:

  • The capacity of Pretium’s management group – all have a deep understanding and respect for the land and people living on the land
  • Understanding that the Skii km Lax Ha live and work in the area
  • Ability to structure a good commercial relationship
  • Respect for the environment in the overall project design
  • Opportunity
  • Integrity
  • Jobs, contracts, training, potential revenue streams

Strengths that the Skii km Lax Ha bring to the relationship:

  • A solid labour force
  • Equipment
  • Certainty
  • They understand the area – they have lived, hunted, trapped and fished there for generations
  • They bring support to the project as it moves into the permitting phase
  • They are excellent contractors and managers and a valuable source of much needed skills and equipment

Chief Darlene Simpson

Benefits to Pretium:

  • Commercial understanding of the project and area
  • They manage maintenance of the access road
  • Their support of the project through the permitting process is critical to Pretium

Benefits to Skii km Lax Ha:

  • Contracting opportunities
  • Skills development
  • Strengthening of community

Relationship moving forward:

“I think the relationship will continue to evolve. They are building capacity within their company to meet our future needs. We are going to have to bring in a lot of materials in and out of the project; we are going to need upwards of 500 people working full time,” says Quartermain.

“My vision of the future is lots of contracting opportunities, jobs and a healthier community” says Chief Simpson. “It’s been hard personally for me to let things go, to not have time to go follow our traditions but I have to find the balance through optimism and opportunities for our communities.”

Lessons Learned from Pretium Resources:

Advice for mineral exploration/mining companies wanting to build relationships with First Nation communities:

  • Start early and maintain a steady dialogue; not just when you need something
  • Maintain an authentically respectful relationship
  • Determine the extent of the capacity of the community
  • Provide opportunity to provide services

Advice for First Nation communities that want to build relationships with mineral exploration/mining companies:

  • Start early

Lessons learned from Skii km Lax Ha:

Advice for mineral exploration/mining companies wanting to build relationships with First Nation communities:

  • Engage early
  • Share information, don’t just inform
  • Engage the First Nation in the project so that they are part of it from the beginning and understand
  • Stay clear of politics

Advice for First Nation communities that want to build relationships with mineral exploration/mining companies:

  • Be respectful and honest in all dialogue no matter what the topic
  • Be honest and upfront about your capacity
  • Try to meet or exceed industry standards
  • Discuss problems as they arise and before they become issues
  • Plan three to five years in advance; anticipate training needs
  • Focus on the youth
  • Share information