York PhD student gets award to study oil sands corporate consultations

A York PhD student has been awarded a grant from the Canadian Foundation for Governance Research (CFGR) to study the policy and practice of consultation with indigenous peoples in Canada over extractive industries.

Jen Mills headshot

Jen Mills

Third-year Environmental Studies PhD student Jen Mills was awarded the $15,000 grant through the Robert Bertram Doctoral Research Award to cover research-related costs between September 2014 and November 2015.

"I believe the current federal and Alberta governments are not respecting the treaties nor the standard of free, prior and informed consent," Mills says. "As a settler in Canada, I am obliged to learn about indigenous rights and to push my government to uphold its commitments. The way consultation is generally done doesn’t respect the right of First Nations to make decisions over what happens in their territory or to decide what the consultation process will look like."

Her research looks at the policy and practice of consultation with indigenous people in Canada over extraction industries, specifically the bituminous sands in Alberta. She'll be examining shortcomings with the concept of 'consultation' and how it's implemented. In practice it does have serious consequences for both First Nations and companies, and it's also the subject of many legal challenges currently underway that could have a big impact on resource extraction.

"I’m interested in how conflicting values and positions among stakeholders affect the consultation process. For the grant, my study will examine the extent and purpose of external stakeholder consultation and reporting by companies, and to what degree these relationships are integrated into core decision-making," she says.

Mills adds, "Even though the duty to consult lies with the Crown, the consultation process is largely delegated to companies, which is why I’m looking at what companies are doing and what relationships companies have with impacted First Nation and Metis communities. What kind of consultation are companies doing and how do they respond to and publicly communicate community concerns? Local relations are a major concern for companies because their projects can get tied up for years in court. Through the study, I aim to identify best practices on consultation and reporting. Companies need to engage in a way that respects treaty rights, even when the government is not."

Her study methodology will rely on qualitative methods; interviews with affected communities, industry, as well as regulatory documents, and she'll be taking a case study approach.

"I'll be focusing on the Norwegian company Statoil, but not exclusively," she says, adding that she's already done some background research on Statoil in Norway.

The Canadian Foundation for Governance Research (CFGR) has established the Robert Bertram Doctoral Research Awards to promote Canadian-based research on corporate governance and to build Canada’s corporate governance research capacity by encouraging the next generation of young scholars. Each year, the Robert Bertram Doctoral Research Awards support the most promising doctoral students who are researching corporate governance issues at universities across Canada.