Tk’emlups Indian Band, the Skeetchestn Band and New Gold’s New Afton Mine Project

The Secwepemc People, known by non-natives as Shuswap, have lived in the Interior of British Colombia for thousands of years. The traditional territory, covering approximately 145, 000 square kilometers, stretches from the Columbia River Valley along the Rocky Mountains, west to the Fraser River and south to the Arrow Lakes. Most Secwepemc people live in the river valleys. After European contact, the colonial government divided the Secwepemc Nation into seventeen different bands. Although the bands are separate, they are united by a common language and similar beliefs and culture.

One of the largest bands, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc (formerly the Kamloops Indian Band) has over 1000 members living on and off the 33,000 acre reserve located east of the North Thompson River and North of the South Thompson River, adjacent to the City of Kamloops. The Tk’emlups is a progressive band seeking to attain self-sufficiency through education and economic development. The band manages the operation of the Sk’elep School of Excellence, a K-7 school that incorporates both high academic standards and traditional Secwepemc culture. Tk’emlups operates eight different corporations with interests including, mining, ranching, forestry and real estate. Tk’emlups pioneered the Indian Property taxation authority and have created over 200 direct jobs and over $200 million of regional economic activity.

The Skeetchestn Indian Band is also a member of the Secwepemc Nation and has over 500 members living on and off the 4,500 acre reserve located near the town of Savona in the Deadman’s Creek valley. Before the establishment of the reserve in 1877, the ancestors wintered in pit house villages along both sides of Kamloops Lake. The Skeetchestn Indian Band is working towards self reliance through education, as indicated by the opening of the Quiq’wi’elst (Blackstone) School in 1996. Once housed in trailers, it was replaced by a beautiful, state of the art facility complete with a geothermal heating and cooling system. The Knucwentwecw Development Corporation is the economic development arm of the Skeetchestn Indian Band, which manages several ventures including the Big Sky Station, Sk7ain, Skeetchestn Holdings LLP, Arrowhead Aggregates, KDC Consulting, KDC Ranches and KDC Construction. Cultural and sporting events such as pow wows and rodeos are important to the community and the Skeetchestn Band hosts healing gatherings and living skills workshops to promote social and spiritual well-being.

Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation SSN

A conversation was initiated between the Tk’emlups Band and the Skeetchestn Band to develop a protocol that would unite the bands and protect collective interests. In 2007, a Resource Sharing Protocol MOU was created to manage the negotiations, conservation and resources on Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and Skeetchestn Indian Band’s shared territory, forming the Stk’emlupsemc te Secwepemc Nation (SSN). They work together to strengthen the economic-social aspect of their people and to capitalize on business opportunities arising from the resource sector. Tk’emlups te Secwepemc and the Skeetchestn Indian Band are equal partners in the company, Stk’emlupsemc Enterprises Inc (SEI). The SEI is designed to perform the economic development function on behalf of the Bands within their traditional territory.

New Afton Mine Project

The New Afton mine is located on the site of the former open-pit Afton mine, opened in 1978 by Teck, which produced until 1991. The mine site is 10km west of Kamloops within the traditional territory of the Tk’emlups and Skeetchestn Bands. New Afton is an underground block cave mine and is expected to produce 75 million pounds of copper and 85,000 ounces of gold annually over its twelve year mine life.

Although the New Afton Project was not a reviewable project under the Environmental Assessment Act because the amount of land to be disturbed fell below the EA threshold, the Project’s review and approval required First Nations and public consultation, and extensive environmental studies. When the New Afton Project commenced review in early 2006, it was the first project in B.C. to implement the Ministry requirement of a detailed Terms of Reference approved by the Regional Mine Development Review Committee (RMDRC). The Ministry’s review process was coordinated through the South-Central Mine Development Review Committee who involved agency representatives from provincial, federal, and local governments, along with First Nations, in guiding the Project Terms of Reference. Following six months of development, which included a public review, comment period and an open house, the Committee approved the terms of reference in late 2006. New Gold Inc. submitted the mine permit application in January 2007, and a 30-day review period followed which included public consultation and review, and a more formal consultation was initiated with the Tk’emlups and Skeetchestn Indian Bands.

Early engagement is a New Gold policy and when the company first approached SSN, discussions centered on the footprint of the mine, exploration, and the investment strategy and capital plan of the company. Workshops and community engagement sessions, including meetings with the elders and youth, were hosted by both the SSN and New Gold, and addressed the major concerns of the community members. These concerns included the environment, respect of their traditional territory during mine development, employment and contracting opportunities, and the financial benefits for the Bands.

Chief Ron Ignace of the Skeetchestn Band explains the historic development, and their role and responsibility in the Mining and Minerals Permit. “We fought for and were embedded in the Mining and Minerals Permit before the mining permit was issued. It puts us in a position of oversight on the mine during operation and gives us the opportunity to be involved in the planning of the operation, as well as reclamation and move to the closure of the mine, and to be involved in monitoring, even long after the mine has gone.”

Partnership Agreement

In 2008, the SSN signed the New Afton Participation Agreement (officially called the Impacts Benefit Agreement -IBA) establishing a mutually beneficial relationship between New Gold and the Bands. The Participation Agreement is a framework for communication, collaboration and co-operation and focuses on HR and employment, education and training, culturally relevant environmental principles, business and contract opportunities and financial considerations for the bands. These aspects become more important at different stages in the mine life. Dennis Wilson, Director Environmental and Social Responsibility at New Gold explains, “From the outset, when you are trying to get approvals environmental matters are one of the most important things both to the bands and to the site. After that period of time, when you start to build capacity within the bands to take advantage of the employment opportunities, the training and education become touchstones for issues.”

All parties agree that communication is key to the success of the agreement and the relationship. Communication venues were developed to address this:

  1. The Joint Implementation committee (JIC), the working group that ensures both parties are abiding by the commitments in the agreement, meets monthly and is made up of two reps from New Afton, a rep from each of the bands and the Environmental Manager from the New Afton site. If a specific issue or problem arises, it is brought forward to the JIC meeting to be discussed and a resolution sought. Most of the issues are resolved at this level.
  2. The SSN Executive meets bi-monthly and is made up of a band councilor from each band, the General Manager from New Afton and the New Afton FN Coordinator. Updates are discussed and any outstanding issues are resolved.
  3. The Chief’s Table, encompassing Chief Gottfriedson of Tk’emlups, Chief Ignace of Skeetchestn and New Gold CEO, Bob Gallagher, meet every quarter to share information. Issues rarely reach this level.
  4. The Environmental Monitoring Board meets on a quarterly basis. The board includes environmental reps from each Band, the Environmental Manager from New Afton and representatives from the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Mines. It allows SSN to pose their questions or concerns while the environmental regulator is present. A process is now in place that if any work being done on site will cause a land disturbance, it is communicated to the SSN and an elder or traditional knowledge keeper is delegated to carry out the proper cultural protocol or ceremony prior to commencement of work.
  5. An Elders meeting occurs at least once a year where updates are given. It alternates between a community meeting and a mine site visit, including surface site tour, and luncheon. New Gold has alleviated the concern that water was continually being pumped out of Kamloops Lake and the elders have become important and valuable spokespeople sharing with others that The New Afton mine recycles water on site.
  6. Youth are also given a yearly update and surface tour of the mine site. It’s an opportunity for them to ask question and job shadow a department they may be interested in. They are invited to come to site and participate in tree planting and discussions are underway to determine if and how the youth can participate in the environmental reclamation work.

The Participation Agreement indicates preferential recruitment and hiring of SSN members. Unfortunately, few SSN members were able to meet the Grade 12 requirement of New Gold. This was one of the first barriers that had to be overcome, but New Gold was willing to identify potential employees using other assessments. The TOWES assessment measures essential or employable skills in three domains, reading text, document use and numeracy, and enables the employer to test the skills of their workforce. Once employed , if needed, an individual’s skills and education could be upgraded. Dennis Wilson states, “Having a good local work force that’s not likely to have high turnover, is engaged in the project and sees the benefit of making sure that the mine site carries out its work in an environmentally responsible way, is a real advantage to the culture of your site.”

Posing another challenge was New Gold’s goal of hiring locally as the community lacked underground mining skills. The closest training was in Ontario and the cost of sending workers was prohibitive. So, in collaboration with the BC Aboriginal Mentoring and Training Association (AMTA, a program New Gold helped launch and remains an industry partner) and Thompson Rivers University, New Gold developed the Underground Miner Training Program specific to block cave mining. New Gold also purchased a heavy equipment simulator which is utilized in part of the training.

Chief Ignace says that building capacity within the Bands is key to obtaining more of the business and contract opportunities at the mine. “We also have the opportunity to get contracts out of the mine which we are now organizing. We do have some contracts; we are hauling the ore to Vancouver. We went into partnership with Arrow because we are trying to build capacity to be able to take over more and more of the business and contracts of the mine. We have a contract in terms of the security system of the mine – overseeing the security of the mine perimeter.”

Twenty – three percent of employees at the New Afton site are Indigenous and 30 – 40 are SSN members. Chief Ignace explains, “That is a substantial number of people working there considering that we had no history of mining. Training – from no experience in mining to getting people working in a mine – was a great leap forward.” Each new employee hired attends an orientation session that explains the history and the culture of the Secwepemc, the reason for the participation agreement with the SSN and explains what the traditional territory is because there is a misconception about reserve lands and the traditional territory. There are many success stories on the New Afton site. Some of the Indigenous employees have experienced struggles in their lifetime and have proudly overcome much to be on site

Martha Manuel, FN Coordinator, New Gold says, “BC AMTA has played a huge role in mentoring, guiding and coaching all Indigenous applicants , not just SSN members, who were interested in employment at New Afton. Without them, there wouldn’t be as many Indigenous workers on site.”

New Gold and SSN worked together to amend and restate the Participation Agreement in 2011. It was an opportunity to further develop the relationship and reach mutual understanding under each section of the agreement. What evolved was the Participation Agreement GAP Analysis – an annual process in which SSN and New Gold review the participation agreement to identify any gaps where either party may not be fulfilling parts of the agreement.

Resource Revenue Sharing Agreement

In 2010, SSN signed the first Economic and Community Development Agreement (ECDA). ECDAs are agreements between B.C. and First Nations for sharing the direct mineral tax revenue on new mines and major mine expansions. Under the new agreement, the province will share mining tax revenue from the New Afton mine with the Tk’emlups First Nation and the Skeetchestn First Nation. The mine started production in 2012 and it is estimated that the revenue-sharing deal will generate $30 million dollars for the bands to share.

Chief Ron Ignace believes that this agreement is a significant and historic development allowing them to be involved in the planning and managing, or co-managing, of their traditional territory and what goes on within it. “We were able to negotiate a mining and minerals agreement with the Province where we enter into discussions with the Province on the issue of policies and legislation around mining that impact our traditional territories. The structure within it – government to government relations – needs to be entertained so we can discuss the impacts on our lands and traditional territories. The established Joint Resources Council allows us to dialogue with the Province.”

Chief Ron Ignace also explains the significance between this precedent setting agreement and the Sir Wilfrid Laurier Memorial. “We have a 1910 memorial that the Chiefs had stated that they wished to be partners with Canada. They offered up 50% of the homeland to Canada, but wanted to keep the rest for ourselves and govern ourselves, and that we would work together and be partners and help each other be great and good. So we went after the province for 50% of the tax revenue for the mine. We were only successful in negotiating 37.5%, but we feel that that is just the beginning and we see the precedent there.”

The SSN also negotiated a separate community economic agreement with New Gold for 2% of the Net Smelter Returns (NSR). This arrangement is for consent and continued support of the project on their land and the returns are expected to be comparable to the mineral tax revenue despite the fluctuating price of gold.

Chief Shane Gottfriedson of Tk’emlups explains, “Resource revenue sharing is about First Nations working in cooperation with companies and government to build a financial arrangement that benefits everyone. Working towards enhancing not only the local economy but the First Nations economy as well. If we relied on the federal government to look after our people, a lot of our people wouldn’t be able to get the education opportunities that they get today. Our economic interests, partnerships and streams of revenue from our organizations help improve the social-economic conditions of our community. Investment strategy is about long-term sustainability. The mine won’t last forever so it’s about being innovative in how we invest the returns on the projects and maximizing every opportunity we can.”

The Skeetchestn Band will not only be using the resources to help fund education and health approaches in their community, they are planning for the future. “In our community we have highway frontage lands that we’ve designated for commercial purposes. We hope to take the revenues that we get from the mine to set up our own businesses on those designated lands -not just spend them. We want to ensure that we have a legacy after the mine closes. We ought to use the revenues that we get from the mine wisely and invest them so that we can have ongoing revenue once the mine is gone.”

The Future

“New Gold believes that our operations create opportunities for the communities surrounding them. We work hard to ensure that our impacts on host communities are positive ones. Through honest dialogue and through our agreements with our First Nations partners, we set about maximizing positive economic and social benefits that will last far longer than our activities.” – New Gold CEO, Bob Gallagher

New Gold is legally responsible for reclaiming the land. In conjunction with SSN, they are currently planning for reclamation as opportunities exist for band members to carry out some of the reclamation work at the end of the life of the mine. Chief Ron Ignace explains the process of developing a reclamation plan and training program so they can have a state of the art approach to dealing with the closure. “We are looking to put together a consortium of people that will assist us in developing the capacity and training of our people so that we can go after and obtain the contract from the mine to do the reclamation work. We are working with IEG who was involved in the Highland Valley Copper Mine reclamation and closure plan and we are in discussions with the Science department at TRU as well as the mining department at UBC.”

Thomson Rivers University has done some work in reclaiming the area with plants of cultural significance. Some waste drop dumps and an old tailings pond were reclaimed following Teck’s departure and some have been used as part of the New Afton infrastructure. Contracting opportunities are available to the environmental/natural resource department of both bands to share their knowledge of the land and their traditional plants and medicines on site with the environmental department of New Gold. The environmental team has registered for an ethnobotany course that will be taught by Dr. Marianne Boelscher Ignace.

Lessons Learned for the Future

Chief Ron Ignace says, “The participation agreement not only gives us the experience to deal with and be involved with government, it gives us the experience on how to deal with and be involved with corporations such as the corporate mining industry. These are important experiences that we require in order to be able to defend, manage and co-manage our lands and resources. This is something you’re not born with – you learn it.”

Martha Manuel explains, “As beneficial as it is to have a participation agreement in place it’s even more important to do what you can to develop that relationship with the First Nations by maintaining open and honest communication. Look for opportunities to socialize and get to know their history and background. I get asked for copies of the Participation Agreement all the time, but the Participation Agreement is just a document. What you need to do is work on the relationship and it doesn’t say that anywhere in this agreement. If you want a relationship to work, you have to work on the communication and have integrity in that relationship.”

Chief Shane Gottfriedson’s advice is simple. “You have to know what the game is. You have to be able to maximize all of your opportunities and don’t be afraid to ask for the maximum amount. At the end of the day, First Nations are in the driver’s seat. There are a lot of companies out there that need to be socially responsible to work with First Nations. In the old days, companies gave First Nations beads and blankets. Now, it’s bigger than beads and blankets; it’s an opportunity for companies to create meaningful partnerships. Corporations play a big part in changing First Nations’ future and if they partner with First Nations they will get the best partner in the world – dedicated and committed to development.”

Chief Ignace believes that it’s a tough road to walk; balancing where and how development occurs. And despite not always agreeing, First Nations, corporations and government need to work together in the friendliest and most understanding way possible. “Be firm and confident in the knowledge of your Indigenous title and rights. You have the authority to have a say in how your lands are to be utilized and it would be wise for corporations rather than to try and fight First Nations about their involvement and their Indigenous title and rights, just say, ‘how can we work together and help each other to become great and good’.”