First Nations vs. miners

 

First Nations vs. miners

 

Copyright (c) 2010 The Toronto Star

 

A Jan. 4 editorial about a dispute between Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation and a mining company incorrectly identified the mining company as Plastinex Inc. In fact, the mining company is Platinex Inc. 20100105

 

In Ontario's vast and remote Far North, it can take as little as a motorboat circling in a lake to stop mining exploration and development in its tracks. That tactic kept float planes from landing last year on a lake 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, the site of a standoff between the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation and a mining company, Plastinex Inc., which sought to pursue its exploration claims in the area.

 

The dispute, which saw native leaders put in jail and a $70 million lawsuit launched against the provincial government, has finally come to an end, but at a cost to taxpayers of $5 million.

 

In the settlement, announced in December, the province agreed to pay Plastinex $5 million to surrender its claims near Big Trout Lake, traditional KI territory.

 

This is just the sort of situation that Ontario's new mining act was meant to circumvent in the future. Passed in October, the new act replaces laws written in 1873, when prospecting was still done with a pick and shovel.

 

The new law strives to balance divergent yet vital interests – First Nations' rights and the needs of mining companies, environmental protection, and economic development in the north. It mandates consultation with native communities at the very beginning and throughout the process. If things still go awry, it provides a dispute resolution process for aboriginal-related mining issues.

 

None of this structure was in place to help prevent or resolve the escalating dispute between the KI and Plastinex. Had it been, Plastinex could not have managed to proceed so far with its exploration plans – against the wishes of the KI – and the government would not have had to compensate the company for its expenses.

 

But the new mining law is still a work in progress. The specific regulations that will determine whether it will justly balance economic, environmental and native concerns are still not in place.

 

This month marks the beginning of a six-month consultation period to draft the regulations, including requirements for exploration permits and how consultation with First Nations will be conducted.

 

Premier Dalton McGuinty has rightly stated that "exploration and mine development should only happen when there's been early consultation and accommodation with local aboriginal communities."

 

But consultation and accommodation can take many forms, and native leaders, wary of government promises, will be trying to ensure that the consultation process spelled out in regulation calls for meaningful participation by First Nations, not just lip service. It is important for the mining industry and our economy that the various parties succeed in finding langauge that everyone can agree to.

 

There is no point, as Plastinex has discovered, going forward with mining exploration without the support of the local First Nations community.