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First Nations forge alliance as Ontario's rush for critical minerals sparks alarm

First Nations forge alliance as Ontario's rush for critical minerals sparks alarm

Calling on Premier Doug Ford to end 'free entry system' for miners into their territories

Naimul Karim

Published Feb 02, 2023 

Copper and gold drill samples. First Nations leaders in Ontario are concerned about a surge in mining claims.

Canada’s recent push to speed up mining permits and boost exploration for minerals such as lithium and nickel, needed to feed the growing demand for electric vehicles, have led to concerns among some First Nations that the Ontario government is providing miners with “easy access” to their homelands without proper consent.

Leaders of Ontario’s Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI), Wapekeka, Neskantaga, and Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows) First Nations whose combined homelands cover about 60,000 square kilometres — about 100 times bigger than Toronto — formed an alliance this week to confront what they call an “attack” by Ontario on their communities.

In a statement, they called on Ontario Premier Doug Ford to meet with them and end the “free entry system” for miners in their communities.

“They are worried about the new justification for mining, that it’s green and it’s kind of like part of the energy transition,” said Dayna Scott, an adviser to the Neskantaga First Nation, who is also director of the environmental justice and sustainability clinic at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.

“They are definitely worried that that will lead to governments thinking that they should fast track or expedite the mining, and about how they are going to do that,” she added.

With an aim to building an electric vehicle (EV) industry, both the federal government and Ontario have talked about speeding up permits of mining projects that take several years to become operational by fast-tracking some of the processes and reviews required.

Scott, however, said governments have been vague about their intentions.

“It’s almost as if they don’t know that there is already co-ordination between the provincial and environmental reviews, that there is constitutional protection for treaty rights in those processes and fast-tracking them is certainly not something that the First Nations are going to accept in relation to their territories,” said Scott.

One project the Neskantaga First Nation is concerned about is located in the Ring of Fire region in northern Ontario, which the Ford government has said has “multi-generational potential” to produce minerals in high demand amid the shift away from fossil fuels, such as nickel and copper.

Ontario is working to build an all-season pathway to connect the Ring of Fire with manufacturers in the southern part of the province. The project is being advanced with the help of two Indigenous groups, but some First Nations in the region, including Neskantaga, have opposed it, saying the area needs a stricter environmental assessment.

On Dec. 9, Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson doused some of the hype around the Ring of Fire, calling it a challenging space. He also said proposals for other mines in Ontario and Canada are “far more closer to realization.”

Projects related to precious metals such as gold have also raised concerns among First Nations.

Chief Donny Morris from the KI First Nation, located about 580 km north of Thunder Bay, Ont., said junior miners, smaller operations often responsible for geological discoveries, were “all over” the community’s homelands exploring the region digitally — the more common way of staking properties today.

Morris said governments and the mining industry must respect the community’s way of doing business in its territories.

“We don’t want to be overrun by, I don’t like to use the word greed, but somehow that’s how I envision it when companies come into our territories offering us little pieces of piecemeals,” said Morris. “We have got to slow things down and make the government and other industry realize there is a third part of government up north and that’s the First Nations government.”

While not against mining, Morris said he wants companies to “be honest” with First Nations and involve them in their decision-making. “How do you go about accessing our land? How do you go about accessing gold? You gotta talk to the community,” he said.

Chief Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows in Northern Kenora, Ont., echoed Morris’s sentiments. He said that since Ford became premier, mining claims in the territory had “quadrupled to roughly 4,000 claims,” mostly looking for gold. The community fears mining activity will add more injury to an area already damaged by industry logging and mercury poisoning from a paper mill in the 1960s.

“Ontario continues to allow mining exploration companies to stake claims on our land against our will,” Turtle said. “Our land and our people have endured too many impacts from industry already. We cannot bear any more.”

In response, a spokesperson for Ontario Minister of Mines George Pirie said in a statement that the Crown’s duty to consult obligations will be met on all projects across the province, including in resource sectors.

“Ontario will continue to work with First Nations to promote reconciliation, build positive relationships and advance exciting opportunities in the resource sectors while ensuring strong environmental oversight across the province,” Dylan Moore said.

Neskantaga’s adviser Scott, however, said that Ontario was benefiting from the First Nations “being divided and feeling alone,” which led the leaders to forge the alliance.

“They want to meet with Premier Ford and they want to talk about achieving a system in which they feel like they can provide their consent and if they withhold their consent that will be respected by the government,” she said.

Originally posted on Financial Post