Background Content

Call to Action # 92: Business and Reconciliation (92)

Indigenous lawyer stresses early engagement is key to success of major projects

March 7, 2024

“One of the major things about First Nations communities, in particular, is the entire Canadian experience is all about taking away our agency, Indian agents, the Indian Act, the minister of Indian Affairs making all the decisions.” —lawyer Sara Mainville

Photo is of a woman standing in an outdoor setting amongst the trees.

Sara Mainville

Sara Mainville has held many prestigious posts.

The Anishinaabe lawyer, who has been a member of the Ontario bar since 2005, stepped up a decade ago to serve as the chief of Couchiching First Nation in northern Ontario.

Mainville was elected to a two-year term in an election that followed the sudden passing of then chief Chuck McPherson.

Mainville uses her law background and also her experience as a former chief to currently assist Indigenous communities with various forms of dispute resolution.

Mainville is a managing partner of JFK Law, a national law firm operating primarily in B.C., but that also does work across the country.

She was a panelist at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada conference that was staged March 3 to March 6 in Toronto. The panel was titled “Navigating to make big projects happen: Critical minerals in Canada.”

“It’s really interesting to work in different regions with different provincial governments with different provincial priorities regarding Indigenous participation in the economy,” said Mainville. “And definitely Canada needs to be a leader in this.”

Mainville said Indigenous engagement from the onset of projects has proven to be a successful formula.

“There’s certain places where we can actually take note of what was successful and what didn’t work,” she said. “And one of the major things that seems to work is partnership from the starting line. Work with Indigenous leadership from the starting line to develop something that they see fills gaps and brings capacity.”

Mainville also believes major projects have a better chance of being successful if numerous Indigenous partners are included.

“The more First Nations that are involved, the more communities and Nations are involved, it actually grows the value of that particular project,” she said. “There are some really great success stories out there where First Nations are working together collectively and building capacity across communities, across Nations. That is really going to cumulatively impact business readiness, generally, internally, in the communities as well as within the regions that they work and live in.”

For those First Nations that do not already have an existing relationship but are considering a partnership, it’s vital to introduce their reps early on and have them engaged in a potential project from the onset, Mainville said.

It’s also crucial for non-Indigenous partners to receive approval for any work that will be done on Indigenous land.

“One of the major things about First Nations communities, in particular, is the entire Canadian experience is all about taking away our agency, Indian agents, the Indian Act, the minister of Indian Affairs making all the decisions,” she said. “The minister, in fact, being the legal owner of our lands. So, that’s why consent is so important.”

And also, necessary, she added.

“Finding creative, flexible ways to include Indigenous decision making is really the starting point of all this,” Mainville said.

She believes government officials also have some work to do to create more trusting relationships with Indigenous partners.

“I think there’s many things for both provincial and federal governments to do to facilitate this type of work that is complex,” she said. “There’s lots of things going on in First Nations communities. Certainly, COVID has impacted everyone. But I know in my practice, I’m still dealing with issues coming out of COVID, including the labour force challenges that First Nations have to actually access the benefits that they negotiated.”

Mainville also believes non-Indigenous partners can be more forthcoming with details when they are aligning with Indigenous communities or groups on various projects.

“Potentially there could be a really useful resource from proponents to let us know and be helpful in how First Nations and Indigenous partners can be more ready to take advantage of those contracts or opportunities that they negotiated,” she said.

The panel also included Niilo Edwards, the CEO of the First Nations Major Projects Coalition.

Edwards offered his thoughts on changes required across the country to achieve policy goals on the ground.

“I think it comes down to building better partnerships, right from the start,” he said. “But also having a policy framework at the provincial and federal level that allows rightsholders to make the decisions as to what happens on the land and to have those processes in place in a good way.”

By Sam Laskaris
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.