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Speaking at Day 2 of IMARC, First Nations leaders from around the world acknowledged that while there has been a growing recognition of the importance of fostering diversity and inclusion generally within the mining sector, more needs to be done to embed Indigenous knowledge, skills and perspective into everyday practices. 

This year’s event includes the largest-ever delegation of First Nations leaders and the most comprehensive program of presentations, panels and exhibitions.

Australian Minister for Resources and Northern Australia the Hon Madeleine King kicked off the conversation by reiterating the Federal Government’s commitment to fostering meaningful partnerships with First Nations peoples. 

“More than 60% of Australia’s resources projects operate on land covered by a claim or determination affording rights and interests to First Nations traditional owners,” Ms King said.

“Our new Critical Minerals Strategy sets a vision for how Australia can become a globally significant producer of raw and processed critical minerals, while boosting economic opportunities for First Nations people and across regional communities.”

Facilitating the panel discussion, ‘Recognising First Nations and Developing Better Indigenous Partnerships that Support Shared Prosperity’, ICMM Director Danielle Martin started by acknowledging how mining has impacted, often negatively, on Aboriginal people. 

“Indigenous people in Australia have been affected by the long-term consequences of colonisation and the disposition of their land,” Ms Martin said.

“Companies need to be thinking deeply about recognition and reconciliation, how we better incorporate Indigenous skills and knowledge into the mining industry, how we make agreements, how we share benefits and how we protect cultural heritage.”

Where are we coming from? 

Strategic Advisor to the First Nations Major Project Coalition JP Gladu said it was important to note that every country and its relationships with Indigenous people is moving at a different pace. 

“As a Canadian First Nations person, I can say that we’ve come a very long way when it comes to our relationships with the land, the government and industry. Not that long ago, Indigenous people struggled to get jobs in Canada, but now, anyone who is qualified and ready work has employment,” Mr Gladu said.

“All paths to net-zero run through the traditional territories of our communities; so Indigenous people play a really integral role in industries like mining. 

“In Canada, the industry is at a stage where it is leveraging its relationship with Indigenous people to take mining to new heights, and that is a really exciting place to be in.”

Meanwhile, in Australia, National First Nations Talent Acquisition Manager at Ernst & Young and Co-Lead of IWIMRA Christina Coleman said the relationship between mining and Indigenous communities has, to date, been relatively precarious. 

“When things go wrong between Indigenous communities and the mining sector, they can go really wrong. Breakdowns in communication can be disastrous, and not understanding each party’s concerns can have a long-term detrimental impact on our people,” Ms Coleman said. 

“Indigenous people are overrepresented in so many aspects of Australia – the justice system, out-of-home care, in low mortality rates – but we’re underrepresented in the mining industry. What we need is not fluffy, feel-good conversations, but genuine discussion and immediate action to better integrate First Nations people into the sector.” 

Looking into the future

The Panel also heard that some of Australia’s largest mining companies are adjusting their First Nations employment and engagement strategies to take into consideration the shared knowledge opportunities on the table to take the industry to the next level. 

Head of Global Indigenous Procurement at BHP Chris Cowan said it is critical for companies to have a genuine focus and commitment to deliver sustainable change and have the willingness to engage in meaningful conversations with Aboriginal people. 

“At BHP, we’re not just sitting around a table in a boardroom coming up with what sounds like a good strategy to guide our engagement with First Nations people, we’re getting out into the communities and having sincere and empathetic conversations with Aboriginal communities to make sure what we’re planning on putting into practice will actually work,” Mr Cowan said.

“We’re also committing to providing assistance to Aboriginal-owned contracting businesses looking to get involved in the industry – helping them write grant applications and set up their companies – to ensure we’re getting better representation.”

Chair of First Nations Foundation Ian Hamm said as we move forward, we need to stop thinking of the industry as being divided into two categories: Indigenous and non-Indigenous. 

“Indigenous people in the mining sector are not ‘competitive stakeholders to be managed’, we should be thought of as a business partnership, a mutually beneficial relationship that can be used to a company’s advantage,” Mr Hamm said. 

“I also think we need to see more Aboriginal people in boardrooms, making big decisions and calling some of the shots. If companies are genuine in wanting to have First Nations people at the heart of their businesses, surely, they need to be represented at an executive level.”

Independent Non-Executive Director Vanessa Elliot said Aboriginal people in the industry can’t just be ‘pop up’ experiences at conferences; they need to be embedded in all aspects of mining.

“Aboriginal people’s knowledge of the land is revolutionary to the mining industry. We’re game-changers,” Ms Elliot said.

“No one understands the conundrum that Australia faces when it comes to climate change better than the land’s traditional owners, and this needs to be leveraged.”