Tlicho Government cancels attendance at NICO signing in show of ‘disapproval’

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In an “expression of disapproval” Tlicho leadership “deliberately chose not to attend” a signing ceremony for a socioeconomic agreement between Fortune Minerals Ltd. and the GNWT for the proposed NICO project outside of Whati. 

photo courtesy of Ryan McLeod Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister and Health Minister Glen Abernethy sign a socioeconomic agreement with Fortune Minerals, proponents of the NICO project outside of Whati.
Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister and Health Minister Glen Abernethy sign a socioeconomic agreement with Fortune Minerals, proponents of the NICO project outside of Whati. photo courtesy of Ryan McLeod

The Tlicho Government was shown a copy of the agreement just hours before its leadership was scheduled to attend the signing, stated a Jan. 31 news release.

The leadership spoke out about its decision to not attend the ceremony, citing “serious concerns with the substance and the process to develop the agreement.”

“Despite continued requests – over the course of a month – to review and understand the agreement they were being asked to witness, a copy was not provided to the Tlicho Government until the afternoon of January 28, 2019, only hours before the signing,” the release states. “The Tlicho Government is disappointed with the agreement itself and with the fact that Tlicho Government was not given adequate time or notice to review the agreement.”

The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment (ITI) met with Tlicho Government in December to discuss the SEA contents in “general terms” including employment and procurement targets and considered their feedback before finalizing and sharing the SEA, said Mike Westwick, senior communications officer with ITI.

What obligation does the GNWT and Fortune Minerals have to show interested parties an SEA before signing?

“The way its sits today — none,” said Westwick, adding that upcoming legislation will strengthen relationships between all partiesto  mineral development.

“The SEA is negotiated and signed between Fortune and the GNWT. It was never the intention to have the Tłı̨chǫ be a party to the agreement. The Tłı̨chǫ were being asked to ‘witness’ the signing event as the project is in the Tłı̨chǫ region,” he said.

The NICO project is a proposed cobalt, bismuth, gold and copper mine located near the community of Whati and is surrounded by Tlicho land.

The project has been given key regulatory approvals, but the Tlicho Government is “deeply concerned by what has transpired.”

Their leadership contends that the GNWT entered into a socioeconomic agreement with Fortune Minerals that is “inconsistent” with the Tlicho Agreement and the forthcoming NWT Mineral Resources Act, which Minister Wally Schumann said will be introduced in the first two days of the coming session.

As a result of the GNWT’s conduct, the Tlicho Government argues the “problematic agreement” made the signing “unreasonable,” states the release.

Tlicho Grand Chief George Mackenzie said he was disappointed with the GNWT and with Fortune Minerals.

“The Tlicho should be primary,” said Mackenzie. “We hear this information at the last hour, we are very disappointed with the GNWT and Fortune Minerals and how they conducted their business on this particular issue.”

The Tlicho Government has “fundamental concerns” with the agreement, and takes issue with employment and hiring targets in particular. It also has concerns about how the agreement interacts with Tlicho rights.

There is no active dispute between Fortune Minerals and the Tlicho are “committed to negotiate” an Access Agreement and Impact Benefit Agreement with Fortune Minerals.

Fortune Minerals has negotiated the SEA with the GNWT for two years.

“The targets are based on commitments from the Environmental Assessment but in some cases have been ‘stretched’ in order to demonstrate the good intentions of all Stakeholders to maximize and optimize NWT employment and procurement,” said Troy Nazarewicz, spokesperson for Fortune Minerals.

The SEA is a non-binding bilateral agreement between the GNWT and Fortune Minerals and “reflects the GNWT’s responsibilities to all NWT residents,” said Nazarewicz.

The GNWT announced the agreement yesterday, noting benefits to residents during the construction and operation phases of the proposed NICO mine.

It lays out targets for local employment, business spending, education and training. It also states provisions for the GNWT to provide a trained workforce from which Fortune Minerals can draw from to reach employment targets.

“The Government of the Northwest Territories continues to work hard to improve the investment climate and support the responsible development of the NWT’s natural resources,” said Industry, Tourism and Investment Minister Wally Schumann in a news release.

“The NICO project is important for our territory’s future and I am happy to see this milestone reached with Fortune Minerals.”

In October 2018, both responsible ministers and Tlicho Grand Chief George Mackenzie gave final approvals for the Tlicho all-season road project. It will traverse 97 kilometres from Highway 3 to Whati, where a spur road will connect the community to the NICO project, 50 km north of Whati.

The all-season road was approved by the the Mackenzie Valley Review Board despite findings that the proposed project is “likely to cause significant adverse impacts on the environment.”

It recommended 23 measures to mitigate impacts to make them “no longer significant.”

Fortune Minerals has the environmental assessment approval to construct its spur road. The NICO project has mineral potential for cobalt which is used in lithium-ion batteries required to power electric vehicles, portable devices and stationary storage cells.

Continuum of negotiations with Tlicho

Fortune Minerals is negotiating binding access and participation agreements directly with the Tlicho Government.

“We will continue to negotiate in good faith and are confident that these agreements can be finalized to the mutual benefit of both parties,” said Nazarewicz.

Fortune Minerals is “not aware of what issues the Tlicho Government has with the SEA besides what has been reported on by the press,” he said, adding that the company was open to discuss “appropriate” and “specific items.”

“Only through engagement and dialogue can we work effectively together,” he said.

The Tlicho Government will be Fortune Minerals primary partner in the NICO Project, said Nazarewicz.

How the GNWT tracks SEA success

The GNWT tracks data on social and economic indicators annually and measures the health and well-being of the territory’s communities.

The Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment meets with proponents annually to discuss projects and what efforts are being carried out to meet targets set forth in socioeconomic agreements, which are non-binding.

The NWT now has five active socioeconomic agreements governing Ekati Diamond Mine, Diavik, Gahcho Kue, Snap Lake and now the NICO project.

Since signing on to an SEA with Ekati in 1996, the territory has seen 13,741 person-years of Northern Indigenous employment. That demographic made up 24 per cent of the total workforce, states GNWT documents.

During operations, Fortune commits to fill 60 per cent of its workforce with NWT residents, 50 per cent of which must be Indigenous. In the construction phase, 35 per cent of total employment will be NWT residents, 50 per cent of which will be Indigenous. By closure, 70 per cent of its workforce will be made up of NWT residents, half of which must be Indigenous.

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