Building trust through community presence and open communication is easy to say and very hard to do – but it’s worth the effort

The former Gunnar Mine is located on the north shore of Lake Athabasca, approximately 25 kilometres southwest of Uranium City.
The Saskatchewan Research Council is managing Project CLEANS to assess and reclaim the site. Here, a group tours the property.
Photo courtesy of SRC

For companies operating in the mining and energy sectors, community engagement is an important component of many projects and sites – from exploration through operation to remediation. A key to success is the integration of local knowledge into operational and closure plans. However, before this knowledge can be integrated, local trust and project understanding must be established. This can only be developed through a principle-centred approach to a shared project vision, two-way communication of knowledge, alignment of project goals and understanding the local needs early in the project. Once community confidence is obtained, this local trust and project understanding must be maintained throughout the entirety of the project. An important principle of this approach is to co-generate plans and activities with communities and not just develop them on the communities’ behalf. 

During exploration and environmental assessment phases, integration of local knowledge can include the development and implementation of land use surveys to determine realistic travel and occupancy needs, specific traditional knowledge and land use studies to develop a detailed working knowledge of local land use, resource utilization, country food intake and human history of the site(s). The local knowledge gained during the assessment process is invaluable as it provides the information required to support project planning, such as valued ecosystem components, human trophic utilization, length of site occupancy, cultural value assessment and future land use considerations.

This approach involves an open planning method that requires the proponent to not only communicate with local communities, but also to be open and prepared to adjust project planning to accommodate the direction provided through these processes. For meaningful dialogue to take place, a relationship of trust and joint understanding must be built. Building trust through community presence and open communication is very easy to say, but very hard to do, and it takes a lot of time and effort. Gaining trust means you have the social licence needed to work in the region. Not only is it important to gain trust, but it also takes work to maintain it.

Community leaders tour the modern-day Gunnar Mine site. The facility operated from 1955 to 1963 and officially closed in 1964 with little to no decommissioning.

The role SRC is playing

The Saskatchewan Research Council (SRC) is managing Project CLEANS (Cleanup of Abandoned Northern Sites) – a multi-year, multimillion-dollar project aimed at assessing and reclaiming Gunnar Mine and Mill site, Lorado Mill and 35 satellite mine sites in northern Saskatchewan, near Lake Athabasca. The project is funded by the Governments of Saskatchewan and Canada. 

Uranium from these sites was mined by private companies from the early 1950s to the mid-1960s. When the mines and mills were abandoned, there was very little decommissioning completed. Because of this, the sites pose potential risks to the surrounding communities and the environment. SRC has been working since 2006 to safely reduce these risks through extensive decommissioning, remediation and monitoring work.

Engagement of local communities has been key as SRC’s Project CLEANS team maintains working relationships with local residents and their leadership within the communities. SRC holds regular community meetings to provide updates and receive feedback from northern residents. Key concerns addressed through this engagement process include human and environmental health, employment and business opportunities, remediation options and potential site end-uses. 

The way forward

SRC developed an adaptive and open process to engage local communities that continues to evolve as community leadership changes, local expectations increase with project success, and the project parameters progress and change. 

Although SRC’s approach to the development of communications, trust and traditional knowledge integration has been specifically applied to Project CLEANS, the approach and concept is applicable through the entirety of the mining cycle (exploration, assessment, construction, operations, remediation and divestment), in any geographic region. 

For more information on SRC’s community engagement work with Project CLEANS,

Ian Wilson is the remediation manager in the Saskatchewan Research Council’s Environmental and Biotech Division.