The Liard First Nation has received more federal money than any other Yukon First Nation to negotiate an impact-benefit agreement (IBA) with a mining company, but has been the least successful at signing one.
Liard has received $245,000 from Ottawa over the last three years to negotiate a deal with Selwyn Resources over the vast Howard’s Pass lead-zinc project.
The First Nation has also spent $40,000 of its own money on environmental reviews of Selwyn’s proposal, and received $100,000 from Selwyn itself to go to the negotiating table.
But there’s never been more than pre-negotiation meetings, because both parties have wildly different expectations of what should be negotiated.
Chief Liard McMillan isn’t concerned about the public investment coming up short.
“In terms of bang for the taxpayers’ buck, or whatever, really that’s not Liard First Nation’s concern,” said McMillan.
“The federal government has a fiduciary duty to the First Nation in terms of trying to protect our citizens and community,” he said.
“That fiduciary duty is the same for me as an elected official and that’s where my focus is.”
McMillan interprets that duty as protecting his people from another Faro mine-type disaster and the protection of aboriginal rights and title.
Selwyn’s proposals have prevented him from getting very far in the negotiating process, he said.
“Our elders have told us time and again that that is not acceptable,” he said.
The entire $245,000 has been spent, mostly on setting up those preliminary meetings with Selwyn and other First Nations of Kaska heritage, like the Ross River Dena Council.
He could not recall how many meetings took place.
“We’re talking about money that’s been spent over the past two and a half years,” he said.
But when compared to other First Nations, many have received much less money for much better results.
Over the last 10 years, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, the Na-cho Nyak Dun First Nation and the Ross River Dena Council have all received money to negotiate IBAs and eventually had deals signed.
Most of the grants were in the $46,000 range. The only outliers were $86,550 to Ross River Dena Council to negotiate with Expatriate Resources Limited, now Yukon Zinc, and $98,500 given to the Na-cho Nyak Dun First Nation this month for negotiations with Victoria Gold.
But McMillan rejects these comparisons, arguing the Howard’s Pass project is one of the biggest mining projects in the Yukon.
“This project is a different project in terms of economies of scale,” he said.
Preparing negotiations is more than just sitting at tables, he said.
Environmental reviews must be done and legal advice must be sought to determine whether Selwyn’s negotiating terms are just, he said.
An environmental consultant and the Woodward and Company law firm from Victoria were hired for that work, and some of the $250,000 went to them, he said.
Environmental consultant Bill Slater was paid $40,000 to review Selwyn’s mining permit earlier this year.
That money came out of the First Nation’s own funds and would have been spent on health, social and cultural programs, according to a letter written by McMillan to the Yukon Socioeconomic and Environmental Assessment Board.
McMillan talks about IBA negotiations and environmental regulation interchangeably.
They’re two different things, but McMillan believes they should be spoken of in the same breath.
When Selwyn first presented the kind of IBA they wanted to the Liard First Nation years ago, the company had already submitted their first exploration licence.
When the First Nation examined the licence, they found problems that made an IBA deal less attractive.
“The proof is in the pudding, we were finding problems in the first licence,” said McMillan.
The First Nation wanted to sign different IBAs for each stage of the mine’s life, but Selwyn wanted one overarching deal for the life of the project.
An IBA effectively renders a First Nation politically impotent, and McMillan wanted to know more of what the future would look like.
“The company requires some sort of certainty that their project can proceed unencumbered,” he said.
“That’s the horse-trading that happens. That’s the trade-off.”
With so many unknowns, the First Nation saw a future where it would be silenced from complaining about a coming environmental disaster.
“A significant amount of environmental questions remain,” he said.
So, in McMillan’s view, you can’t say yes to an IBA without knowing the content of a company’s regulatory applications.
“What are the timeframes? What is the size of the ore body? How is the ore going to be transported and milled?” said McMillan.
“The company still hasn’t figured some of this out.”
But moving through the regulatory process in a multi-pronged approach is normal for the mining industry.
Western Copper was moving steadily along in its regulatory process for the Carmacks Copper project before it hit a brick wall at the Yukon Water Board and it’s now embroiled in a court battle.
McMillan compared the Selwyn project to that incident, except Liard First Nation is trying to give regulators a heads-up that tasks like water testing shouldn’t be left to the last minute.
Another way of looking at the IBA money is whether the Indian and Northern Affairs Department took a hard enough look at what they were investing in.
The Liard First Nation is avowedly difficult to negotiate with.
“The Kaska have had a long history of saying no to inferior agreements,” said McMillan.
“We said no to the Umbrella Final Agreement for that same reason.
“As a Kaska citizen, I’m proud of that. Other citizens are proud of that.”
If an IBA doesn’t get signed, Ottawa doesn’t ask for the money back, said Line Gagnon, a spokesperson for INAC, which funneled the money to the First Nation.
INAC did get a financial audit on the way the money was spent, she wrote in an e-mail.
“The region received audited financial statements for both 2007/08 and 2008/09 that indicated that the funds were spent on activities associated with the contribution funding,” she wrote.
“The recipient also provided reports that supported the financial statements.
“These reports attested to a number of supporting activities related to the negotiation process including a number of meetings with representatives from Selwyn Resources Ltd.”
McMillan hinted that his First Nation’s long battle with Selwyn may soon be coming to an end.
“Stay tuned,” he said.
He wouldn’t divulge what he was talking about.
Contact James Munson at