Exploring the impacts of mining on Aboriginal health

August 19, 2011

Resource Extraction

Mining is a contentious topic the world over, and Canada is no exception. Although it has been an important contributor to the Canadian economy over the past two decades (fairly consistently accounting for 3.5% to 4.5% of the country’s GDP), mining has also created serious environmental, social and health problems. What makes mining in Canada especially problematic in terms of ethics is the inequitable distribution of its benefits and costs. The economic benefits tend to flow southward, while the environmental and social impacts remain up North. For residents of remote Northern communities, most of which are First Nations, Inuit and Métis, their connections with the land and with community mean that mining can have devastating effects on their physical, mental and spiritual health.

While a great deal of research has been done in the separate fields of Aboriginal health and of mining, there is very little academic literature focused on the health implications of mining for Aboriginal communities. But a new research project — headed by Ben Bradshaw of the Impact and Benefit Agreement Research Network, and funded by the CIHR and  SSHRC is currently working to address this gap by making connections between the separate research fields of Aboriginal health and mining impacts. The goal of the project is to provide Aboriginal communities with the information needed to assess whether mining is the right option for their community, and if it is, the information needed to pursue mining in a manner that will ensure the protection of individual and community health.

How can Aboriginal communities benefit from mining projects while protecting the health of individuals and of the community and culture as a whole?  An emerging trend is the creation of agreements between mining companies and Aboriginal communities called Impact Benefit Agreements (IBAs).  These agreements allow communities to secure specific benefits from the companies, such as employment, revenue sharing, community funds and investments in local infrastructure, while obliging the company to carry out specific measures to mitigate or eliminate environmental and health impacts.  However, in order for communities to take advantage of this opportunity they must be aware of what the likely impacts of mining are, how they may manifest, and how they can be avoided.

Approximately 1,200 Aboriginal communities are situated within 200 km of mining properties in Canada.  Many Aboriginal communities, especially those in remote Northern locations, have few opportunities for employment and economic development. For these communities, mining can represent a solution for Aboriginal businessesthrough jobs and new markets.

In 2009, Rio Tinto’s Diavik diamond mine in the Northwest Territories employed approximately 270 Aboriginal people and spent $145.3 million on services provided by Aboriginal businesses. But these sources of income are limited to the period of operation of the mine, and do not necessarily prevent the occurrence of negative health impacts.

Some of the most common hazards that come to mind when thinking about mining are occupational health risks and environmental impacts.  This is not surprising, since mining jobs continue to be amongst the most dangerous jobs that exist in Canada, and environmental impacts associated with mining — ranging from acid mine drainage to deforestation — are well documented.  These are all seriousissues since Aboriginal workers in mines often have manual labour jobs that are amongst the most dangerous on site, and Aboriginal individuals in remote communities rely on clean water and soil to support their hunting and harvesting activities. Fortunately, with the strengthening of workplace safety regulations and monitoring and the development of technology to mitigate environmental contamination, these direct health impacts have decreased substantially in recent decades.

Researchers are now looking at less obvious, but perhaps more worrisome, indirect health impacts associated with mining. These health impacts often play out through changes in lifestyle and tend to persist long after mine closure.

There are many examples of these lifestyle changes, including: tensions amongst community members arising from differences in opinion regarding mining; reduced family time and increased responsibilities for women when men spend weeks away at a mine; less opportunities for cultural activities and time on the land; and unhealthy behaviour associated with a sudden increase in income. The complexity of these impacts makes them difficult to isolate and the fact that they often manifest as reduced mental health and community well-being makes them harder to diagnose and remedy than physical health problems. However, it’s crucial that these impacts and their connection with mining are thoroughly analyzed and understood, since they have the potential to destroy relationships, degrade culture and cause lasting damage in Aboriginal communities.

This is where Ben Bradshaw and his research team come in. Next year, in partnership with the community of Baker Lake in Nunavut, they will be translating their research findings into brochures, short films and radio shows for Aboriginal communities. As this information circulates throughout Northern Canada it will play an important role in enabling Aboriginal communities to critically consider the health issues associated with mining before entering into any agreements and, in cases where mining is chosen as a means of community economic development, to protect and enhance the physical, mental and spiritual health of their communities.


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