Chief Chris Moonias of the Neskantaga First Nation is photographed in Neskantaga, Ont., Friday, Aug. 18, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young Listen to article
Canada’s National Observer: Today, anybody can make a mining claim on the Ontario government’s website as long as they have a few minutes, a computer and $50. The mineral claims process happens in an electronic heartbeat, and claims are marked on a digitized map.
The result is a flood of claims on First Nations territories, huge administrative pileups and frustration among First Nations that say they are not being consulted and have no capacity to deal with the sheer volume of mineral claims.
Last week, the Chiefs of Ontario called for a moratorium on mining claims to deal with the problems connected with the onslaught of stakes linked to the province’s digital mineral lands administration system, Ontario chiefs told Canada’s National Observer.
Critical minerals now hold the means to Canada’s green industrial transition, but it’s becoming clear that the pathway to a green future runs through First Nations, who say they are not being adequately consulted or heard by governments pushing for mining development.
Mineral claims are predominantly staked by junior mining companies, small outfits that can run with as few as two to three people. Charlie Angus, the NDP MP for Timmons and author of a book about mining in the North, says the problem with the current system comes from the fact “it can be done by anybody’s basement computer,” he said, resulting in a crop of shady companies staking at will for the promise of profit.
Angus said the current scenario does not lead to a sustainable mining industry that begins with consultation and community engagement before staking and development.
Wilfred King, chief of Kiashke Zaaging Anishinaabek, notes this free-for-all system isn’t good for exploration companies, either. It provides no certainty, and if there is no consultation, the companies risk problems down the line, particularly if they try to sell an asset opposed by the local First Nation.
It’s an argument that he uses to counter Garry Clark, director of the Ontario Prospectors Association, who told CBC News that a year-long moratorium will chase away investment in the province, pointing to worldwide competition.
On the ground, Chris Moonias, chief of Neskantaga First Nation, estimates he receives between 10 and 20 mining or resources-related claims a day, “so we just don’t have the capacity or the time to address everything.” Moonias only has two administrative staffers who work on them, as well as grappling with the community’s other social priorities, including a housing and water crisis. On Feb. 1, the community will have been on a boil water advisory for 30 years, he said.
Neskantaga is a vocal critic of plans to develop the Ring of Fire, the major prospective mining region that sits on their territory. Moonias notes Neskantaga is a pro-development community as long as it is done in the right way, but insists the nation’s laws and protocols are currently not being respected.
King said the “mining rush for green energy” is getting in the way of other priorities for his nation and other chiefs negotiating for a larger land base for their communities, as promised in the 1850 Robinson-Superior Treaty. Mining claims disrupt those negotiations because they prevent a mineral withdrawal order needed for the exchange of Crown land, he said. The process to receive the withdrawal order could take years and even litigation, King added.
In an email to Canada’s National Observer, a spokesperson for Ontario’s Ministry of Indigenous Affairs said its Aboriginal Participation Fund supports First Nations throughout the consultation process.
“Ontario meets the Crown’s duty to consult obligations on all resource projects across the province,” the spokesperson wrote. “Ontario will continue to chart a path towards meaningful reconciliation as we look to improve the health, social and economic well-being of all First Nations.”
However, Moonias points the finger at Ontario for failing to even meet with Neskantaga about the community’s social needs, which he said amounts to Third World conditions. Eight community members have died since October, including his land and resources lead and two youth around Christmas. Last week, Moonias and his council met with Ottawa; he said Ontario was invited to the meeting but there were no-shows.
Still, the mining claims keep piling up for Moonias and his council.
“Ontario refuses to be part of that solution,” Moonias said, pointing to the community’s need for infrastructure and social supports. “Instead, they want to extract our resources. “To be blunt, they don’t give a shit about us, about our lives,” he said.
Angus said communities have nothing to lose by resisting mining development given Queen’s Park neglect and Ottawa’s “muddling around” with crises in First Nations. Treaties are not respected and the duty to consult is ignored, so First Nations naturally oppose the degradation of their lands.
MPP Adil Shamji, the Ontario Liberal critic for northern development and Indigenous affairs, said the cry for a mining claim moratorium is another example of the Ford government not engaging in meaningful consultation. He points to a similar moratorium launched by the Anishinabek Nation, a group representing 39 First Nations in the province, in 2022.
Angus agrees, recalling Ford’s promise to hop on a bulldozer himself to develop mining in the province. “It’s sending a message of disrespect. It’s the old ‘this is white land, this is white government, we’re going to establish [development] and we’re going to cut red tape,’” he said.
It’s still unclear what steps communities will take next and whether further court challenges, including Treaty 9’s $95-billion lawsuit that includes injunctions, will arise. Last year, the B.C. Supreme Court ruled the province’s Mineral Tenure Act was unconstitutional because mining exploration was skirting the duty to consult. It’s still unclear if Ontario is destined for a similar ruling.
King does believe some First Nations will take the Crown to court on constitutional grounds. But he also thinks Ottawa has to be held accountable for pushing its critical mineral strategy, which includes subsidies to junior mining companies that lay their stakes on Indigenous lands without consultation.
“The federal government is just as guilty as the provincial government in terms of what is going on,” he said.
— With files from Isaac Phan Nay
Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative