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Doing The Groundwork


The Nanwakolas Referrals Office

On any given day in the Referrals Office at Nanwakolas Council, the team will be reviewing the hundred or so referrals that come across their desks every month.

The first job is to get all the referrals logged into the system. Johnny Nelson, the GIS Analyst at Nanwakolas, sends all the referrals that come into the office to the referrals office assistant who then does the administrative legwork to get them into the computer system and underway. “We have a commitment to get every file set up and under way in forty-eight hours,” says Nelson. “It is a huge amount of work and takes a lot of attention to detail. I can sometimes get a dozen new emails at the end of the day and we still have to meet that time commitment, and not miss any of the details.”

But what exactly does that all mean? Referrals office staff get asked constantly. “What do you do exactly?” Many people don’t know what a referral is, or why Nanwakolas Council does this work. “I tell them, we’re doing the groundwork to look out for First Nation’s best interests,” says Nelson.

What is a ” referral” anyway?

Before approving any Crown tenure (such as a forestry permit or a mining lease), the provincial government must first consult with First Nations on potential impacts on their Aboriginal rights. Typically, the government “refers” all tenure applications it receives to potentially affected First Nations, asking for a response within a set time frame. These are what have become commonly known as referrals.

What’s the big deal?

Activities like mining and forestry, and indeed any resource-related activity being carried out in the territory can have serious impacts on Aboriginal rights and title. Unless the First Nation responds to the referral, the options for a satisfactory outcome are limited.

But for many First Nations governments with huge administrative workloads and inadequate budgets, the extra work that referrals cause is an enormous burden. Melinda Knox, now Chief Executive Officer of K’omoks Economic Development Corporation, used to be the Band Administrator for the First Nation, and responsible for dealing with all the referrals coming in. “Back then i was the only administrative person in the Band Office, so it was hard even to get all the regular work done sometimes.” says Knox. ” I used to take home all the referrals and do them at night, just to try and stay on top of them.”

Some of the member First Nations would simply oppose applications because they didn’t have the resources needed to research potential impacts or propose ways to avoid those impacts to the government. Some didn’t respond at all; the referral envelopes were not even opened. The result was that the government would typically simply make a decision based on what it considered the impacts likely would be. Most of the time, it would simply approve the tenure: “When the government doesn’t get a response, they just assume silence is consent,” observes Melinda. “They go ahead and approve the permit. That’s why it is so important to reply to the referrals.”

That’s where Nanwakolas steps in

The Nanwakolas Council Referrals Office was established to administer referrals on behalf of the member First Nations, at no cost to the First Nations. “It’s been a godsend!” confirms Melinda. “Even though that is no longer my role, I still feel that having Nanwakolas providing that administrative and technical support service to the K’omoks First Nation has taken so much stress and expense off our shoulders.”

Under an agreement between Nanwakolas,  the provincial governmnent and the Nanwakolas member nations, all referrals are now sent to Nanwakolas for processing. A team headed by Referrals Office manager Art Wilson notifies the affected First Nations, enters the referrals information into a database, assesses the likely impact of the referral, undertakes research and prepares reports for the First Nations.

That’s just the beginning, says Art. “We have referrals officers who are experts in lands and forestry issues. They will go to meet with the First Nations to see what concerns they have with the referral and find out if further research is required. The referrals officers will also help set up meetings with the applicant or with the provincial government, if that’s what the First Nation feels is necessary, and facilitate discussions around impacts and actions that could be taken to mitigate or avoid those impacts.”

The Referrals Office also prepares response letters for the First Nation to send back to the government. “It’s their rights that are being affected, so they have to make the decision and send the response. We can’t do that; we’re just doing the legwork for the First Nation, or the groundwork,” Wilson explains.

“That’s right,” confirms Melinda Knox. “The K’omoks First Nation still does our own internal consultation. It’s our Nation’s decision what to do, but Nanwakolas gives us the information we need for our Chief and Council to make that decision.”

A successful process

The benefits to the member First Nations of using a central clearinghouse for administering referrals have been extensive. “Technology is one aspect of that.” Observes Johnny Nelson. “The computers and software required to manage the system are expensive and very complex. Because we’re centralized, this is very cost-effective and efficient way to manage all the information on behalf of the First Nations.”

After thirteen years in business, the referrals team have also gained a great deal of experience and is putting it into practice on a daily basis. “The workload is much bigger now than in 2007, but we’ve really streamlined the process. We know the history. We know when the First Nation has said yes or no before on a similar application, so consistency of response is better that it used to be, and we know where the really sensitive areas are now so can act faster to help the First Nation protect them. That’s immensely beneficial for our members. We’re also all much more familiar with the issues, and so are many of the tenure applicants, or proponents-a lot of them are renewals, or from proponents who have previously applied for other tenures, so their understanding has also greatly increased.”

The last factor is a huge asset, says the team. Proponents are increasingly respecting the points of view of the First Nations. Industry is coming to the First Nations before even making an application, to try and build their interests in right from the beginning.

On the flip side, says Wilson, not every application is bad for the First Nation. “Some of them represent economic opportunities for Band members, for example.” Being responsible as much as possible and not simply opposing everything, which is what used to happen, helps build trust and credibility with the proponents and with government. “Now when a First Nations says no, the government understands it really does mean no.”

The professional, consistent approach taken by the member First Nations through the Nanwakolas referrals process has also led to a better relationship with the provincial government, adds Wilson. The government is more responsive to concerns that are raised than it was in the past, says Art: “These days, only a very small number get approved when there is opposition from the First Nations. That’s phenomenal success, and a complete turnaround from the past.”