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Joseph Sagaj of Nestkantaga First Nation holds a sign of opposition to the Ring of Fire in Toronto, on July 20.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Two years ago, First Nations leaders made clear what Canada must take to heart if it wants to be a global player in critical minerals and the energy transition: The only road to net zero runs through Indigenous lands.

That is, any efforts to develop mines, build roads to get to them and construct plants to process the minerals need to respect First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities that are affected – and indeed, involve Indigenous peoples from the start of planning. That includes equity ownership.

Ottawa launched its national critical-minerals strategy in 2021, complete with a $1.5-billion infrastructure fund. It is aimed at helping the private sector connect the links of a supply chain for manufacturing the keys to the low-carbon economy – batteries for transport and energy storage. That starts with unearthing the country’s bounty of nickel, copper, cobalt and other minerals.

To do that, the government and private sector must take all the lessons learned over many years about Indigenous consent and participation in mining and other industrial projects, and make them part and parcel of development strategies. Those lessons have frequently been learned the hard way – through costly failures in the courts and other venues.

“There’s a race to get to market, and to get to the market, you’ve got to have product, and to get to product in this country, that means Indigenous rights,” said Mark Podlasly, corporate director and chief sustainability officer of the First Nations Major Project Coalition. “Those minerals are not found in urban centres. They’re found on traditional territories, or you will need roads and access to traditional territories to get to them.”

The coalition, which seeks economic benefits for its 145 members from industrial development, has lasered in on the issue of critical minerals, holding conferences on the topic and publishing reports. They all reach the same conclusion: Indigenous communities are central to Canada’s hopes of competing with global heavyweights such as China in critical minerals.

Last year, the group issued a report from a series of roundtable discussions on the topic that concluded success will depend on early consultation and inclusion of First Nations in development plans, equity and partnerships with developers as well as free, prior and informed consent from First Nations governments and membership on all projects along the supply chain, as spelled out by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Following these tenets are crucial in helping prevent some of the disputes and legal fights that have upended projects over the past two decades, Mr. Podlasly said in an interview. One need only to look at the saga of the Enbridge Inc.’s failed Northern Gateway oil pipeline proposal to see how it can all go wrong when Indigenous communities don’t feel respected, and courts rule that consultation – a constitutional duty – was inadequate.

“If we don’t have consent, we’re just not going to get the minerals out of the ground because First Nations are not prepared to see what happened previously in gold rushes or transportation rushes or industry rushes,” he said.

None of this is a secret. Indigenous issues have become recognized as so central to resource extraction in Canada that some sustainability leaders have pushed for the letter I to be added to the corporate ESG – environmental, social and governance – trident.

One of the highest-profile proposals involves the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario, a region that is currently inaccessible by road. It is already contentious in Indigenous circles. The project will seek funding from the federal critical-minerals infrastructure fund after already garnering a $1-billion commitment from the Ontario government.

Marten Falls First Nation of Northern Ontario is leading a federal environmental impact assessment into a proposed road into the community and co-leading another road assessment into the Ring of Fire alongside Webequie First Nation. The roads would connect Marten Falls and the isolated Ring of Fire mining camp to the provincial highway network 300 kilometres to the south. The projects, which also include a road into Webequie, were last estimated to cost $2-billion.

But controversy over the proposals shows that Indigenous peoples do not speak with a unified voice on all issues. The Land Defence Alliance, which represents Neskantaga First Nation, Grassy Narrows, Wapekeka First Nation, Muskrat Dam First Nation and Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, has demanded that Ontario Premier Doug Ford promise no development will take place without their consent. Among the group’s concerns is mining development could disrupt traditional hunting territories.

When it comes to consent for projects, equity is the purest form, said Mr. Podlasly, a member of the Nlaka’pamux Nation in British Columbia. That opportunity gives Nations the information necessary to make solid decisions, and as co-proponents to projects there is no question about support. Indigenous participation can also help attract capital by signalling to financial markets potential hurdles to moving a project forward have been removed, he said.

In November, Canada Infrastructure Bank unveiled a program to help First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities acquire equity stakes in projects on traditional territories as part of a previously announced commitment to invest a minimum of $1-billion in Indigenous infrastructure. The program will offer loans to Indigenous communities to help them buy equity stakes in major projects in which the CIB is an investor.

“Indigenous people want to see smart projects done that benefit them as much as benefits Canada,” Mr. Podlasly said.

“What they’re expecting is an ability to participate in a way that is respectful and recognizes their Indigenous rights, and recognizes their, in some cases, title to the land – and recognizes their presence in the regions where these companies generally don’t have people, or history, or will not be there after the mines are depleted.”

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