Ontario’s Mining Act assailed

 

Ontario's Mining Act assailed; First Nations protest the latest in long-running dispute

 

Peter Koven

Financial Post

(c) 2008 National Post . All Rights Reserved.

 

The long-simmering issue of mining activity on First Nations land soared to the forefront yesterday as National Chief Phil Fontaine of the Assembly of First Nations joined a protest at Toronto's Queen's Park and slammed government mining policy before a throng of media.

 

The outdoor press conference, held in front of a teepee, was the latest milestone in a long-running dispute in which a group of First Nations people were arrested and the Ontario government was slapped with a $70-million lawsuit.

 

The problem centres on a property called Big Trout Lake in Northern Ontario. A tiny junior company called Platinex Inc. tried to commence drilling on the site last year, but it was blocked by six members of the First Nations Group called Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI). This came after nine years of failed talks between the two sides.

 

The so-called "KI 6" were arrested and handed six-month prison sentences. They got a five-day leave from jail this week to protest at Queen's Park, where they were joined by hundreds of supporters and were cheered at the press conference (a seventh individual from another dispute is still imprisoned).

 

They are demanding changes to Ontario's Mining Act, which they say allows the government to hand out mining claims on First Nations' traditional land and anywhere else it wants.

 

"It's not an aboriginal issue any more," said Chief Donnie Morris of the KI.

 

"Now it's municipalities, cottage owners and private property owners. They're in the same boat we are. What's happened to our community can happen to them too."

 

National Chief Fontaine, who supports responsible mining, backed the KI 6 and blamed the Federal and provincial governments for failing to resolve the matter and fix the Mining Act.

 

The Act was written in 1873, and while it has been tweaked and updated over the years, the Ontario government has acknowledged that it needs a thorough review and plans to conduct one.

 

But Michael Gravelle, Ontario's Minister of Northern Development and Mines, also rejected the First Nations claims that the Act is so one-sided, pointing out that it clearly rejects staking on First Nations land and other sensitive territory.

 

"There is no argument about the fact that First Nations should be consulted on what activity goes on on their lands. To a certain extent [the Platinex dispute] is a land claims issue," he said in an interview.

 

The First Nations are not the only ones giving Minister Gravelle headaches: Platinex is also suing the government for $70-million (plus interest and costs), claiming that Ontario "breached its duty" by not allowing the company to access its mining claims at Big Trout Lake.

 

The bigger issue is updating the Mining Act to keep disputes like this from emerging again. Mr. Gravelle said the government will go through long consultations with all stakeholders to get it right. One thing he wants to stress is that companies should meet with First Nations before they even begin to stake claims.

 

"Quite frankly, when I talk to the companies, they're looking for clarity as well," he said.

 

pkoven@nationalpost.com

 

Color Photo: Christ Wattie, Reuters File Photo / Phil Fontaine, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, took part in a protest at Queen's Park in Toronto yesterday that slammed the Ontario government's mining policy. ;