2021 volume 31 issue 3

Indigenous Relations Takes Centre Stage in Canada


Uranium mining powerhouse Cameco Corp. has 30-plus years of experience with Indigenous relations and has forged partnerships that have helped the company in boom times and in lean times, too, says Rachelle Girard, Vice President of Investor Relations, Treasury and Tax. For instance, in 2018, when Cameco shut down mines in northern Saskatchewan because of a weak uranium market, the company worked to find other opportunities for its Indigenous employees.

“Even though we had to lay off people, we enjoyed strong support because everyone recognized that we want to have a sustainable business. When the market turns, we will bring those people back,” says Girard. “And they’ll be loyal and available to us.” 

Cameco’s five-pillar approach to Indigenous relations is built around workforce development, business development, community engagement, community investment, and environmental stewardship, explains Girard. Nearly 50% of Cameco’s workforce in its northern operations is Indigenous, or Residents of Saskatchewan North (RSNs). A few are in the unique position of being third-generation Cameco employees.

“For a son or daughter to follow in a parent’s footsteps is one thing, but then for a grandchild to continue, it’s another thing,” says Lana Eagle, Senior Advisor and Reconciliation Specialist at her own firm, Lana Eagle Consulting, in Campbell River, British Columbia. Eagle adds: “It’s a measure of success when there’s a longevity of employment that carries on.” 

Recent revelations about unmarked graves for Indigenous children at residential schools are altering the conversation about Indigenous rights, says Eagle, who is a member of the Whitecap Dakota First Nation.

“The discovery of unmarked graves … is a part of our history,” she explains. “And much of Canada and the world are coming to know how Canada did not treat Indigenous people with respect.”

Reconciliation is no easy feat for even the best-intentioned companies. Eagle points out that it is particularly complicated in Canada because there are over 630 Indigenous communities, each with their own culture, language and history.

And yet taking the time to understand and advance Indigenous relations is critical for any Canadian company’s success. “You cannot build infrastructure in this country unless you’ve got strong Indigenous relations,” says JP Gladu, Principal at consulting firm Mokwateh and Acting Executive Director of the Indigenous Resource Network. “These days, you need partnerships, equity projects, Indigenous businesses in your supply chain, and Indigenous workers in your workforce.” 

Best Practices

Recent regulatory advances point the way to how Canadian companies might embrace Indigenous relations. Bill C-15 requires the Government of Canada to work with Indigenous people to prepare an action plan to address and eliminate all forms of violence and discrimination against them. In addition, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) Call to Action #92 gives guidance on Indigenous inclusion specifically tailored to Canadian businesses.

Katie Wheatley, SHARE’s Manager, Reconciliation and Responsible Investment Initiative, urges Canadian IROs to consider five key areas in which investors are particularly hungry for more and better data about Indigenous relations: 1) employment and advancement, 2) contracting and procurement, 3) workforce readiness training and education, 4) cultural awareness, and 5) community investment. 

Shannon Joseph, Vice President of Government Relations and Indigenous Affairs for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, believes in quantifying data for investors. She notes that oil sands companies spent $2.4 billion with Indigenous-owned businesses in 2019, up from $2.02 billion in 2018.

Numbers are critical, but sometimes providing other types of value matters, too.

Justin Himmelright, Vice President of Sustainability at Skeena Resources, is convinced that a positive relationship with Indigenous people rests on conversations and on a definition of ‘value’ that might or might not be monetary.

He points out that Skeena’s gold-silver mine at Eskay Creek is a brownfields site and his company inherited a “positive history” with the Tahltan Nation. “Traditionally, the Tahltan were miners of obsidian and it was a trade good that they used culturally. Mining is part of their culture,” he says. “Having conversations with the community about what directions they’d like to grow and strengthen and being a good neighbour make a huge difference.”

One way to begin these conversations is through reconciliation action plans. Jordan Baptiste, Managing Director, Saskatchewan, for Creative Fire, an Indigenous-owned consultancy, is working with C-suites and Boards at a handful of Canadian companies to design such plans.

Common in Australia, reconciliation action plans put goals in a framework alongside clear metrics that lead a company to a better overall experience with Indigenous people, says Baptiste, who is from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg. “You can track these metrics over two or four years,” he says, “and it can start an ongoing process of continually doing better.” 

The Investment Role

Some argue that Indigenous relations belongs beneath the broader umbrella of ESG. Since partnerships with Indigenous communities can “make a project go or can make it stop,” Himmelright believes that investors assume significant risk whenever they commit money to a project that intersects with Indigenous rights.

Baptiste notes that some experts are even using a new acronym – ESGI – in recognition that Indigenous concerns should be front and center when it comes to sustainability reporting. And in fact, the First Nations Major Projects Coalition explicitly set out to “put the ‘I’ in ESG” with its program for its 2021 Indigenous Sustainable Investment Conference.

Although a compelling case can be made that Indigenous relations should be paired with ESG, proxy advisory firms have been slow to act. Moody’s is an exception. In June 2020, it published a piece[1] suggesting that failing to obtain a social license from Indigenous communities might pose an investment risk.

Even if ESG advisors are not rushing to include Indigenous issues within their models, other useful efforts are afoot. For instance, the Canadian Council for Aboriginal Business (CCAB) has a Progressive Aboriginal Relations (PAR) certification program that confirms corporate performance at three levels: bronze, silver, and gold. When Gladu first headed CCAB in 2012, he notes that only 14 companies were PAR certified, but by his departure in 2020, there were over 100. “You need to start putting targets and measurements in place,” says Gladu. “What doesn’t get measured doesn’t get done.”

Another reason why IROs might focus more attention on Indigenous relations is that some Canadian companies, such as Enbridge and TC Energy, have faced shareholder proposals in this arena, says SHARE’s Wheatley.

Earlier this year, SHARE filed a shareholder proposal on Indigenous inclusion at TMX Group on behalf of the Atkinson Foundation.

Mark Sevestre, Founding Member of the National Aboriginal Trust Officers Association (NATOA), helped TMX better understand the proposal it faced. By working with proponents, TMX went from opposition to support. The proposal passed in May with a whopping 98% shareholder approval rate.

Investor questions coming into companies outside of oil and gas and mining have mainly been focused on the recommendations of the TRC’s Call to Action #92 as their starting point, says Karen Keyes, Head of Investor Relations at Canadian Tire Corporation. A handful of investors have asked about policies around Indigenous employment and procurement, as well as education of non-Indigenous staff about Indigenous history, and specifically the history of residential schools.

Keyes explains that her company has brought together Indigenous leaders, employee advisors, and external experts to develop an Indigenous Reconciliation and Inclusion Strategy to address the TRC calls to action. In addition, she points out that over the past year, Canadian Tire has accelerated its efforts around diversity and inclusion, such as supporting Indigenous employees and communities by “collecting more quantitative data” and “listening to what employees across the organization have to say about this issue.”

“We’re a big employer in Canada. We’re present across the country and historically we’ve done work with the communities we operate in, and we are on a journey to figure out how we build on that,” she says. “Another step on the journey will take place on September 30 with our employees participating in a company-wide Truth and Reflection event. This event enables Canadian Tire to demonstrate its commitment to its Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging vision and demonstrate solidarity with Indigenous communities by acknowledging our shared history and understanding Indigenous perspectives through workshops that will be held throughout the day.”

The Indigenous Voice

Board membership is widely considered a surefire way to elevate the Indigenous perspective within a public company.

A leader in the Saskatchewan Indigenous community, Donald Deranger, sits on the Board at Cameco, which has a Board charter mandating that at least one director be Indigenous. Other Indigenous directors include Roberta Jamieson (RBC), Keith Martell (Nutrien), W. Sean Willy (TELUS), and Cheri Brant (Hydro One).

“I’ll make the audacious statement that every company in Canada that intersects with any kind of land activity should have an Indigenous person on its Board of Directors,” says Gladu, a corporate director at a number of companies, including Suncor.

Gladu underscores that Indigenous directors bring an important perspective on key topics beyond inclusion of First Nations. “The ‘E’ in ESG is a big focus for our world,” he says. “Indigenous people innately have a bead on that. We’ve been concerned with the environment and are often referred to as ‘Mother Earth’s caretakers’ because of our strong connection to the land. And we haven’t lost that connection.”

Matthew Pike, Manager of Indigenous Relations for Vale, works on a dedicated, seven-person team consisting solely of Indigenous employees who help oversee agreements for the company’s Voisey’s Bay Mine with the Nunatsiavut (Inuit) community.

Thanks to this team, Voisey’s Bay was the first mine in Canada to voluntarily shutter operations when the pandemic struck. Pike notes that several team members had lost family members to the 1918 influenza pandemic, and this history taught them that Indigenous people working at the mine bore an added risk of carrying infection back to rural family members with limited healthcare options.

“We sent our Indigenous workforce home with pay so they would not be negatively impacted,” says Pike. “That was by far the proudest moment of my career.”

A Look Ahead

Engaging with Indigenous people in equitable partnerships is the next step on the reconciliation journey, according to Gladu. One model for such partnerships is Suncor’s East Tank Farm Development facility, of which the Fort McKay and Mikisew Cree First Nations own a 49% stake.

Gladu believes that equity partnerships are not only critical for Indigenous people but for Canadian competitiveness, as well. He notes that when First Nations acquire reasonably priced equity in projects, projects gain a greater measure of certainty, making success more likely.

Indigenous relations is an area “that is evolving and the evolution is moving very quickly,” concludes Skeena’s Himmelright. Until recently, he rarely saw the “deeper dives and due diligence” around Indigenous engagement that are common today.

“The level of awareness has really increased over the last five or six years,” Himmelright says. “I’m hopeful that this is not just ‘the flavour of the day.’”

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