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Northwest Territories

Staking rush has northwest Indigenous communities on the defensive

Four tribal communities in northwestern Ontario and the far north are forming a “land defense alliance” to stop an “incursion” by prospectors and explorers into their ancestral lands.

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI), Wapakeka, Neskantaga and Asubpeesschoseewagong Anishnabek (Grassy Narrows) signed a mutual cooperation agreement on Jan. 31 to protect their common lands and waters. It’s in response to “increasing concerns about interference” by the mining industry.

The leadership blames Premier Doug Ford, who they say has ignored their calls to scrap the free entry system and has encouraged a staking rush with “thousands of new claims” in their traditional territories since 2018.

First Nations leadership was not available for an interview, but in a press release they said a point of contention was that prospectors were not required to notify nearby First Nations until the claim was registered in the province’s online claim staking system .

And Ontario, they said, only notifies First Nations after claims are purchased. These explorers do not have the “consent of the indigenous people living there”.

The leadership said Ford ignored their requests for a meeting.

In a statement, Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong, supported communities in exercising their inherent rights.

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“The right to self-determination is an inherent right of our people and does not come from other governments. I call on Ford and the federal government to uphold and respect the inherent rights of all First Nations people throughout Ontario and not to take action against these allegations.”

Ontario switched to an online mineral claim staking system in 2018 to encourage foreign investment. Similar systems exist in other provinces.

Northwest Ontario has increasingly become an exploration hotbed for lithium, platinum group metals and other critical minerals that the world is seeking to transition to non-carbon technologies. The region has attracted significant investment from countries such as Australia. The Paterson Lake area near Grassy Narrows has developed into a very prospective area for lithium.

A decade ago, a dispute over exploration involving AI, some junior miners and the province led to then-North Secretary of Development and Mines Rick Bartolucci withdrawing 23,000 square kilometers of land and closing it to exploration explained. This moratorium still applies.

Now two of the communities — KI and Wapakeka — have vowed to “protect” a 13,000-square-mile watershed of the Fawn River, an area they say is a tourist route and used for fishing and hunting.

Grassy Narrows said it is also asking Queen’s Park to respect a 7,000-square-kilometer Indigenous Conservation Area and withdraw it from mining and logging activities.

The communities also want some historical grievances with the province addressed.

In an email reply, the office of the province’s Mines Minister, George Pirie, said the “Crown’s duty of consultation on all projects throughout the province, including in the resource sectors, is being fulfilled” to promote reconciliation, positively Building relationships and promoting resource opportunities while ensuring the protection of the environment are appropriate.

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Ontario Prospectors Association executive director Garry Clark said it was not a good sight for a country keen to extract critical minerals in the world.

“It will hurt researchers in Ontario eventually.”

Clark notes that, by and large, indigenous communities desire mineral exploration. Some want it on their own terms.

“They basically want to run their own mining act.”

Clark said there are often instances where claims are staked near a First Nations community but no fieldwork takes place because a nearby Indigenous community won’t allow it. And it’s happening more and more, he said.

There have been industry complaints about delays in obtaining government approvals to advance projects.

Clark points to the north shore of Lake Superior with the Ginoogaming First Nation case and other disputes. In some situations, prospectors and companies turn away from projects.

Through his consulting firm in Thunder Bay, Clark said he has clients and knows prospectors, including tribal peoples who may not be able to get permits due to First Nation objections, sometimes in the area where they live.

“The community didn’t support letting people onto the land.”

Clark said Ontario’s free entry system does not mean trampling on people’s rights. There are checks and balances, he said, through the planning and permitting process.

As prospectors, Clark said, “The best we can more or less do is go out and prospect, which means explore the land and take some samples with a hammer and maybe some hand tools.”

Once exploration progresses into an activity that is deemed effective for the country, it falls under the plan and permit system. This includes obtaining approvals from federal and state regulatory agencies before issuing permits.

Permits may include negotiated provisions for when explorers must avoid conducting work on claims, such as during hunting season or at the time of caribou calving, Clark said.

“The country is quite protected.”

The purpose of the digital damage map is to allow people to closely monitor staked out terrain. Updated monthly maps are being sent to affected communities showing exploration activity in their area, Clark said. Prospectors are also informed by the government of their responsibility to comply with the rules.

Another reason why companies and prospectors do not obtain permits on time is a very risk-averse approach by the province.

Clark said the Ontario government has reached a point where the courts and the attorney general “need to be assured that there is consent, that the consultation is complete.”

A prospector can arrange a meeting with a First Nations community, he said, but the government must have a level of confidence that the duty of consultation has been met before a permit is granted. “We did it on her behalf.”

Clark doesn’t know if more government consultation with communities is the answer.

To change the narrative, he suggests the government should encourage more industrial and indigenous success stories, a nod to the Musselwhite Mining Agreement, which has been in place for 25 years.

“Ontario must show the victories.”

More knowledge about how the industry works needs to be shared, Clark said. Municipalities need to see that there is an economic benefit to them.

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