First Nations, Ice Road Truckers and the Canadian North

By Ian Thomson, On Common Ground Consultants Inc.  

There is something about the North that permeates the soul of Canada. Almost all of the population lives in cities strung across the southern margin of the country, close to the border with the USA, leaving Canada with a vast ‘back yard’ that stretches north into the Arctic Ocean. The far North (Nunavut and the Northwest Territories) has the same iconic character for Canadians as does the West for Americans; perceived as a boundless frontier with opportunities for the brave and strong. However, unlike the US West, which long ago filled in with people and development, the Canadian North remains a sparsely populated land of rock, lakes, forest, tundra, muskeg and permafrost. The preferred form of transport is by air. Few people from the South get to see the North first hand. Most know it from nature and wildlife programmes on TV, which provide images of wide open spaces, caribou migrations, First Nation trappers and Inuit hunters, and reality shows such as Ice Road Truckers.

As with the US West, opening of the Canadian
North has been driven by a quest for natural resources. From the time of Franklin, the lure of riches from mineral deposits in the Canadian Shield has drawn people from the South into the land of rock, ice and snow. The frustration has been that, despite the many discoveries over the years, relatively few ore deposits in the North have become mines. There is talk of the problems of negotiating agreements with First Nations and the lengthy process of permitting a mine. However, patterns of development and the commodities involved indicate that the real challenge is infrastructure. The lack of all-weather roads and railroads means that it is difficult to impossible to move large volumes of heavy materials such as ores across and out of the North. Away from easy access to tidewater, the successful mines have almost always produced a low-volume, high-value product: gold and diamonds are the classic examples.

World-class iron ore and base metal deposits in the North sit in the ground, waiting for infrastructure to reach them. Historically, government provided leadership through initiatives such as the ‘Roads to Resources’ of the 1960s, which opened up parts of the western and southern sectors of the North. Nothing so bold appears likely to happen today. Mining projects have to be financially robust enough to support construction of their own infrastructure needs.

Also looking at mineral resource development are the original residents of the North, the Inuit and First Nations, who have become active players in recent years. It was not always so. Until relatively recently, the indigenous people of the North were marginalised or excluded from employment in mining. The few companies, such as Cominco (now Teck Resources), that actively employed native miners created ‘Indian-only’ shifts and work crews to overcome the rampant discrimination of the times. Over time, however, there has been major change, which started with the Burger Commission decision in 1977 to delay development so that the First Nations of the Mackenzie Valley had time to become ready to participate in the process. Momentum increased following repatriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, which entrenched aboriginal rights. Today it is impossible to gain a permit to mine without negotiating a sophisticated, multi-part impact and benefit agreement (IBA) with the local First Nation or Inuit that includes guarantees of employment.

The diamond mines have provided a particularly significant opportunity for both miners and the aboriginal population. The mines have been a financial success and from the start gave priority to the local people for employment throughout their operations, creating a situation where there are no longer enough First Nations or Inuit workers to fill the jobs potentially available. Partly as a consequence, the nature of the IBAs has evolved as successive mines have come in with emphasis shifting from employment to business development and, most recently, cultural support and community well-being: which brings us back to those Ice Road Truckers.

The reality show has appeared in almost every English speaking country, and a few more besides. In the first series, the tough truckers were doing a dangerous job in awful late-winter conditions hauling supplies up the ice road from Yellowknife to the diamond mines. The truckers are memorable personalities – Hugh, Jay, Alex, TJ and Drew. Less memorable are Paul, Brandon, Nick and Neil from the logistics company that had organised the haul and contracted the truckers. These men worked for Taicho Landtran, a joint venture company of the Taicho Investment Corporation, which in turn is owned by the Taicho First Nation. This is only one of several companies owned by the Taicho, which include firms dedicated to human resources, real estate, hotels and travel, catering and housekeeping (for the mining camps), maintenance and engineering services. Using the leverage of the IBAs with the diamond mines, the Taicho and other first nations have become entrepreneurs and business executives. As long as the mines remain active, there will be full employment for the Taicho First Nation, who now hires people from the South to fill out the workforce needed to keep things going.

Mines have finite lives, however, and people in the North wonder where the next will start-up. The dream is for infrastructure investment in roads and railroads that would help increase the opportunities. The hope is that the relative stability created by large volume, long-life projects such as iron ore mines will finally come to the North. 


By Ian Thomson, On Common Ground Consultants Inc. 

Ian Thomson is principal and co-founder of On Common Ground Consultants Inc., an international consultancy specialising in enhancing social performance and socially sustainable outcomes for the global resource sector.
[email protected]

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