A Far North smokescreen for mining companies

 

A Far North smokescreen for mining companies

 

Peter Gorrie

Copyright (c) 2009 The Toronto Star

 

When does "No" mean "No?"

 

In Ontario's Far North, the answer still isn't clear despite recent changes to two major laws governing that vast wilderness of boreal forest and tundra.

 

The region has been off-limits to most development, with the exception of the De Beers Canada Victor diamond mine near the James Bay coast and a claim-staking rush for additional diamonds and other minerals.

 

That activity, and the prospect of far more, has angered environmental groups and caused conflict between mining companies and some of the 37 aboriginal communities that collectively claim most of the 425,000 square kilometres as traditional territories.

 

The proposed Far North Act and the new Mining Act are intended to resolve the competing demands. Half the region is to be off-limits to development, apart from tourism; nothing substantial is supposed to happen elsewhere until land-use plans are created.

 

The government says those plans will require the approval of any affected community. A similar process is to apply to mining projects: They must comply with the plans, and the communities must be consulted before work begins.

 

That sounds like a veto, and it has raised the ire of people in southern Ontario who, as I wrote two weeks ago, still have no say about mining on provincially owned Crown land – where most exploration is taking place.

 

A veto wouldn't necessarily stop development: Some communities want mining and other development as long as they're full partners. "We're interested in being owners of those opportunities," Nishnawbe Aski Nation Grand Chief Stan Beardy told a northern newspaper. "We're talking about active participants in the wealth creation."

 

The bottom line, he continued, is: "No prospecting, staking, exploration or mine development will proceed without a written agreement in place, at the discretion of the First Nation."

 

Giving communities this right would make them self-governing masters of the land. Which is why, for all the talk of consultation and locally approved plans, they'll likely get less.

 

Up in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, outside the few towns, the Dene and Inuit are close to government, in practice if not in law. Although they're the majority in both territories, it took decades of building and flexing political muscle to do it.

 

Those in Ontario's Far North aren't close to having such clout, and they're not getting it in the new legislation. Queen's Park reserves the right to the final say; and why not?

 

In a democratic society, doesn't ultimate power rest with the elected representatives of all the people?

 

What's troubling are the signs the government is trying to have it all ways, offering a murky consultation process while preparing the ground for development.

 

Mining projects will continue to be exempt from environmental assessments for a few more years. Mine clean-up rules are delayed, as is a policy for protecting the iconic and endangered woodland caribou.

 

All existing claims may continue, which means no sure end to standoffs like that pitting Toronto-based Platinex Inc. against Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, which has generated a flurry of lawsuits and, last year, jail time for five community members.

 

Mining companies can conduct exploration work while land use plans are created. They'll use the millions they spend to justify the right to develop projects, no matter what the plans eventually require.

 

Inadequate funding for northerners to participate in planning has a coalition of green and aboriginal groups complaining: "In the absence of money for developing proactive plans there is a risk that communities will be forced to support development projects as the only means to get the money necessary for planning for their future."

 

The new laws promise more than they're intended to deliver – a recurring theme with this government.

 

Peter Gorrie is the Star's former environment reporter. He can be reached at: pgorrie @ sympatico.ca

 

1255851-870724.jpg | toronto star file photo The De Beers Canada Victor diamond mine near James Bay. – toronto star file photo The De Beers Canada Victor diamond mine near James Bay. | ;