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Northwest Territories First Nation signs landmark mine partnership

People in the community of Fort Resolution in Canada's Northwest Territories have entered into a landmark agreement with a Toronto-based mining company.

The Deninu K'ue First Nation members now have the option buying three percent of Avalon Rare Minerals' proposed mine at Thor Lake, which is about 130 kilometres (80 miles) east of  the Northwest Territories' capital city of Yellowknife.

The band signed an agreement with the company at a ceremony in Fort Resolution this week.

This is the first time a mining company has recognized the community of Fort Resolution as a partner.

"Part ownership, even though it's not much of a percentage, it's a good start. After fighting for IBAs [Impact Benefit Agreements] for all these years, not getting one, today, a lot of people should be happy," said Robert Sayine, an elder and band councillor in the community.

The agreement is giving people hope for future opportunities.

"It means a lot to me, but it's the future and the younger generation coming up, and the young families, that is where we aim everything at," added Sayine.

Global demand for rare earth minerals growing

If approved, Avalon will be mining for rare earth minerals such as tantalum and beryllium which are found in rocks in the area. The rocks aren't flashy, but the minerals inside are used in electronics, wind turbines and rechargeable batteries.

Global demand for the resource is growing, and Avalon says this deposit could be worth millions.

"We want our community partners to be working with us and understand what the project is about and see how they can benefit from it," said Don Bubar, the CEO of Avalon.

Bubar said that if Fort Resolution can't find the financing to buy in, the company will loan the band the money.

He said it's a good jumping-off point for community members to get involved in other mining projects.

"It's really the only industry that can create real wealth for the local people. First Nations have not been active participants in mineral development in the past, and it's high time they were," he said.

Chief says mine will help community move forward

The agreement means work at the Nechalacho deposit and a proposed processing plant near Pine Point, an abandoned mining town in the territory.

The project would bring about 300 jobs to the region.

Deninu K'ue Chief Louis Balsillie said he thinks the community will be able to move forward because of the mine.

Balsillie said there will be a registry at the band office which Avalon can use to find local heavy equipment operators, carpenters and electricians.

"What I would like to see in the community is more of Avalon's crew that they do hire to live amongst us in the community. Mining companies tend to forget -- they get the approvals from the First Nation and they just bank themselves into a biggest environment," he said.

Avalon is trying to negotiate the same deal with the band in Lutsel'ke, N.W.T., and another with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

If those two bands buy in, the mine will be 10 percent Aboriginal-owned.

Avalon estimates that the mine will start production in 2016. It still needs to pass an environmental assessment, and the company needs to find a billion dollars in financing to build it.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.