Twice this week, first in reply to a comment on another post, and then in an email exchange, I half-jokingly suggested that we need to call a Lake Superior Mining Indaba – a big gathering of all stakeholders around the Lake Superior Basin to deliberate, listen and be heard on the future the new mining boom is already ushering in. I’d been following the African Mining Indaba underway this week in Capetown; and while that buttoned-up event — a forum focused primarily on private sector investment in Africa — isn’t exactly a model for the public gathering I picture, the Zulu word indaba and the images it conjures of people coming from all around the lake have stayed with me, and the promise of the idea keeps growing.
First, don’t let the Zulu word put you off. That’s just what got me started down this path. The concept it conveys is definitely not foreign to the Lake Superior region. Gatherings like these have a long history there. “The Sault,” writes Warren in his History of the Ojibway, “was a major summer gathering place for many native people in the seventeenth century,” well before the establishment of a trading post there in 1750; at La Pointe, where “a continual fire burned,” there was “a yearly national gathering” and initiation into the rites of the Midewiwin. In the 18th century big regional events like the Montreal trade fairs were as essential as more formal diplomatic forums in establishing and renewing the French-Algonquin alliance (though, as White shows, the regular accommodations necessitated by daily life were most important of all in perpetuating it).
A Lake Superior Mining Indaba, as I envision it, could combine elements of a Future Search conference, a bonfire celebration (like the Juhannuskokko at Misery Bay) a Pow Wow (like the Manoomin festivals in Ontario and Bad River), and a music or cultural festival.
Let’s say for the sake of discussion that the Indaba runs Wednesday to Friday, to be followed by a festival weekend. The conference brings together a few hundred people from around the lake to share stories and ideas and plan for the future. From more formal discussions and interactions to serendipitous, informal conversations, the conference would help people make meaningful connections, and build the kind of diverse, resilient network that’s needed to accelerate learning as the boom begins.
As I like to remind people, one of the busiest mining operations in the world is about to be staged around one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. That calls for some concerted thinking about the future, as well as concerted planning and action.
The 90-day public comment periods like those we’ve seen in Minnesota for the Polymet project or the dysfunctional “community forums” Rio Tinto staged in Michigan – which I’ve written about before, and which have seen a falloff in attendance – are no substitute for genuine public deliberation. Nor do they allow for big-picture thinking or the kind of networked learning that a lake-wide Indaba like this could initiate.
Many environmental leaders in the region now sense the need for a cumulative environmental assessment – a scientific assessment of the effects all this mining on the US and Canadian sides of the lake is going to have on the waters and on the region as a whole. We also need a broad, cumulative assessment of where all this activity leaves people living around the lake, what direction things ought to take, and an actionable plan for how to get there.