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Avalon Advanced Materials separation rapids lithium deposit near Kenora, Ont., in 2017.Avalon Advanced Materials

Don Bubar is president and CEO of Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. and Phil Fontaine is former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations.

The world is undergoing an economic transformation, and innovative new clean technologies are increasing the pace of change. The International Energy Agency and a 2020 World Bank report noted the increasing role of minerals and metals for a low-carbon future. Indeed, the energy transition will involve a significant rise in demand for a growing list of non-traditional mineral commodities including lithium, cesium, tantalum, scandium and rare earths referred to as “critical minerals.” With China now controlling the supply chains for many of these critical minerals, security of supply has become a major concern for governments around the world.

The Canadian Shield is blessed with vast mineral resource wealth, including all of these critical minerals, which remain largely undeveloped because of the lack of appreciation for the economic opportunities they offer. This not only includes mineral development, but also establishing the downstream supply chains by encouraging innovation on how to process these minerals efficiently and utilize their unique properties in new clean technologies.

The path to creating the Indigenous economy in the North is through natural resource development undertaken sustainably, and critical minerals offer precisely that opportunity. Abundant lithium resources in Northwestern Ontario underpin Avalon’s vision for a new lithium-battery-materials refinery in Thunder Bay. A glance at recent Canadian history reveals many examples of successful Indigenous participation in the natural resource economy, including the energy sector, agriculture, forestry and mining. The time has come for Indigenous business to take a leadership role in establishing Canada’s new critical minerals supply chains.

While the authors have been trying to draw attention to this opportunity for some 15 years, we are delighted to see that others are now recognizing the opportunity. We note the recent establishment of the Centre of Excellence for Indigenous Mineral Development in Ontario by the Waubetek Business Development Corp., supported by Sudbury’s Laurentian University, the Government of Canada and now Rio Tinto, as another step in the right direction.

The Tahltan First Nation in Northern B.C., and Chief Jerry Asp’s entrepreneurial leadership, is a great example of economic reconciliation and shared prosperity for his community through direct participation in the mining industry. His leadership was recognized in 2020 with his induction into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame. Today, First Nations increasingly have capacity for direct participation in the mineral industry and critical minerals supply chains offer entirely new sustainable development and equity-participation opportunities, delivering real value and business growth potential.

Other examples of successful entrepreneurial Indigenous community leaders exist from coast to coast. In Atlantic Canada, we have the Mi’kmaq Nation and the community of Membertou in Cape Breton, led by Chief Terry Paul, now involved in multiple sectors of the local economy. In Quebec we had the late, great chief Billy Diamond’s important role in signing the James Bay Hydro Development Agreement in 1975 with then Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, resulting in the transformation of the Cree Nation into a major industrial enterprise in Northern Quebec. These success stories and many others, such as chief Jim Boucher’s Fort McKay First Nation in Alberta, make it clear that Indigenous communities with strong leadership can become much more active participants in the economy.

It is time to move beyond the “duty to consult” obligations of governments and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples – while still respecting Indigenous peoples’ rights. We now need to promote more business-to-business conversations between mineral development companies and Indigenous communities toward establishing partnerships to develop critical minerals supply chains.

Political leadership is now needed to modernize policy and recognize that the entrepreneurial talent to create wealth and prosperity exists in many Indigenous communities in the North. Active equity participation in critical minerals development projects by Indigenous businesses and entrepreneurs is something our political leaders of today would be well served to encourage, creating a win-win-win scenario for Indigenous peoples, the northern Canadian economy as well as policy-makers’ aspirations on climate change.

Phil Fontaine and Don Bubar have shared a common vision for Indigenous participation in the Canadian mineral industry since 2008 when they led the signing of a historic MOU between the Assembly of First Nations and the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada. Mr. Fontaine later served on Avalon’s board of directors where he became familiar with the new Indigenous business opportunities being created by critical minerals such as lithium and rare earths.

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