Can free, prior and informed consent work in Canada?

The term ‘free, prior and informed consent’ should be familiar to anyone who has had anything to do with resource development on Indigenous land. It is the principle that a community has the right to give or withhold consent to projects that could affect the lands they customarily own, occupy or use.

So far so good. But what does this really mean?

Any attempt to broker such consent — as Canada is trying to do — requires deep insight into how all sides define important concepts.

The challenge of course is that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people have throughout history failed to understand each other. Or as Darren Thomas puts it, “We haven’t been on the same page. There is no informed consent until you know each other’s views. Treaties were about agreeing to co-exist and that never really happened.”

Thomas is a PhD student in community psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University. He is also Onodowa:ga (Seneca Nation) from the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations/Iroquois) territory of Oswe:ge (Grand River).

With recent attempts around the world to more sincerely recognize treaties, Thomas says the time is right to get to the bottom of this thorny concept. His dissertation aims to develop best practices for making free, prior and informed consent work in Canada.

Zeroing in on the Ring of Fire

In partnership with researchers at Lakehead University, Thomas will use as a case study the Ring of Fire — a massive proposed chromite mining and smelting project in Northern Ontario’s mineral-rich James Bay Lowlands.  More specifically, he will document the processes of consultation and consent-seeking with the Matawa Chiefs Council in Noront Resources’ proposed development.

While Thomas is in the midst of working with the Matawa Chiefs Council to develop a culturally appropriate study set-up, he will ask all parties — industry, government and the Matawa First Nations — to answer three basic questions: What does land mean to you? What do resources mean? What is consent?

Thomas’s dissertation is part of a larger international project looking at ways to foster meaningful participation by Indigenous communities in decisions about economic development on their ancestral territories. It includes more than 45 researchers from seven countries, in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

“Demand to develop natural resources is not going away. It’s the heart of the Canadian economy,” he says. “Some Indigenous communities will say no to development. Some will say it must be sustainable with shared benefits. But they need the right to choose, and that means free, prior and informed consent.”

**On February 2, 2016, the Council of Ontario Universities proudly launched the Let’s Take Our Future Further campaign highlighting Aboriginal learners’ achievements at Ontario universities and their contributions to Ontario’s social, cultural, and economic fabric. As part of the launch of the Future Further website, Research Matters is proud to feature five influential Aboriginal researchers from Ontario universities. 

Darren Thomas

Wilfrid Laurier University

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