Aboriginals say Ontario must pay for consultations to end mining dispute

 

Aboriginals say Ontario must pay for consultations to end mining dispute

 

BY CHINTA PUXLEY

(c) 2007 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.

 

TORONTO (CP) _ The province must write a blank cheque for extensive consultations with the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation before any mining activity begins near the community, a spokesman for the remote northern Ontario band said Thursday.

 

John Cutfeet said the province didn't consult the First Nation when it allowed junior exploration company Platinex Inc. to drill on land 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.

 

Ontario is holding up negotiations by refusing to pay for a full consultation on drilling on the Big Trout Lake property, he said.

 

While the proposed mining site isn't on reserve land, it is within the aboriginal band's traditional territory and could contaminate the community's lake, Cutfeet said.

 

“All we want to see … is that we have a say in what happens in our territory that's going to have a huge impact on our lives,'' he said. “The lake is our livelihood. We eat out of there. We drink water out of there.''

 

In the meantime, a court injunction has halted work on the site, and Cutfeet said negotiations have stalled.

 

The province should not only be paying for a full consultation before any mining activity begins, but that right should be enshrined in law so all aboriginals are consulted before prospectors go in search of gold, diamond and nickel in the north, the First Nation argues.

 

This case is being closely watched because the band is challenging the Ontario Mining Act on constitutional grounds, which could impact the high hopes many have for unlocking the north's natural resources.

 

Rick Bartolucci, Ontario's minister for northern development and mines, said he's optimistic all sides will be able to resolve the dispute through negotiation.

 

While he wouldn't talk about whether the province will pay for consultations with the First Nation because it is part of the ongoing legal dispute, Bartolucci hinted the government won't be writing any blank cheques any time soon.

 

“Certainly our ministry and the government continues to be very, very responsible with regards to the management of costs of this engagement,'' he said. “We've made a rather fair proposal to (the First Nation) with regards to the cost they would incur.''

 

Negotiations are continuing and moving forward, Bartolucci said. It's not necessary to legislate consultation with aboriginals into law because the Supreme Court has already handed down a ruling to that effect, he added.

 

But Anna Baggio of the Wildlands League environmentalist group said it's time the government took a strong stand to protect aboriginal land rights and the province's boreal forest.

 

The conflict over mining activity in northern Ontario could have been avoided if the province updated its “antiquated'' mining act to spell out clear rules on aboriginal consultation and environmental protection, she said.

 

Right now, there is nothing compelling the province to hold meaningful consultations with aboriginals before they authorize mining activity on their land, she said.

 

“You can't just have business as usual development. It's failing communities and it's failing nature.''

 

New Democrat Gilles Bisson, who represents Timmins-James Bay, said the government must go beyond simply consulting aboriginals and should legally include them in both planning and revenue-sharing if it wants to exploit the natural resources of the north, he said.

 

“The First Nations communities don't want to live in poverty forever,'' Bisson said. “They recognize that developing mining, water and forestry activities are going to be good for them over the long run. But First Nations have to have a say in what happens when it comes to access to their territories.''

 

The Big Trout Lake dispute started last year when protesters blocked an access road and landing strip, arguing the government had no right to grant Platinex a mining permit for their land.

 

Platinex filed a $10-billion suit and asked for a court order to remove the protesters. The band filed a countersuit and successfully obtained a temporary injunction prohibiting exploration on the land. Superior Court Justice Patrick Smith gave the band, company and province five months to negotiate. The talks were granted an extension this week.