The Liberal government may be buoyant about the mining boom it hopes will juice up the economy, but recent events have many wondering if mining firms are capable of delivering fair treatment to First Nations living over or near those subterranean resources.
A few weeks back, the Libs wrapped up the feedback process for their long-awaited revamp of the Ontario Mining Act, a target of native groups and mining watchdogs. The act enshrines the right of prospectors to subsurface minerals on land owned by others, and activists want changes allowing communities the right to refuse.
Alas, the province released its draft amendments earlier this year, and the fine print reveals major loopholes. Exploration firms would still be able to stake and sample claims without notifying First Nations; consultations would only be required for high-level prospecting.
Most striking, however, is the absence of any reference to the right of refusal. "We want to have the authority to say no, and I think we have that authority," says Chief Donny Morris of northwestern Ontario's Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI), which has had mining run-ins with the Libs.
The province's lack of follow-through on the native file verges on the ridiculous. In March, the government issued a temporary stop to all mining activity on KI land, but the moratorium didn't apply to T.O.-based God's Lake Resources, which staked its claims early enough to get in under the wire. A month later, pressured by a KI campaign, the government was forced to pay $3.5 mil to the company to abandon its claims.
It's not the first time money's changed hands to make up for flaws in the governance process. In 2008, six members of KI, including Morris, were jailed trying to stop Platinex from prospecting on traditional KI land. The province backed down and paid $5 mil to buy out the firm's claims and leases.
That $8.5 million grand total is the cost of a botched consultation process that doesn't appear to be remedied in the act's new draft.
At MiningWatch Canada, Ramsey Hart says his group has been lobbying the province to adopt the standards set by the UN Declaration On The Rights Of Indigenous People, which insists that actual consent be required. "We're still very much in the realm of consultation, which is quite ambiguous," Hart says.
KI isn't the only community wrestling with a mining onslaught. In January, Wahgoshig First Nation east of Timmins won a court injunction to temporarily stop Solid Gold Resources from prospecting.
In 2010, decrying a lack of consultation by companies, members of Webequie and Marten Falls First Nations blocked airstrips at Koper Lake and McFaulds Lake over Ring of Fire activity.
Things are different at the Wabun First Nation, a string of communities south of the Ring of Fire. There, members have negotiated more than a dozen exploration agreements with companies. Still, Jason Batise, economic development adviser for the Wabun Tribal Council, feels strongly that aboriginal groups must have the right to participate on their own terms, an issue that hearkens back to treaties signed a century ago.
"KI says it's their land and that it doesn't belong to the province. The province says it's Ontario's land and Canada's," Batise says. "That dispute is at the heart of the matter and has never been resolved, at least not in the First Nations' minds."
According to Adrian Kupesic, a rep for Minister Rick Bartolucci at the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines, the Mining Act's new draft is meant to balance interests, clarify roles and responsibilities and ensure aboriginal concerns are "taken into account in the decision-making process."
But the NDP takes issue with the draft's omissions. Sarah Campbell, MPP for Kenora-Rainy River and the party's aboriginal affairs critic, says the province needs to consult directly with First Nations as equal partners. If municipalities have the right to set zoning bylaws, she asks, why can't aboriginal communities?