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Judge pauses road construction for Springpole mine project

First Mining Gold disappointed in First Nation opposition to access road, will maintain 'open door' for dialogue
First Mining Gold Springpole Project (aerial photo)
First Mining Gold's Springpole Project (Company photo)

A judge has called for a temporary suspension in the construction of a winter road by First Mining Gold to reach its Springpole mine project, east of Red Lake.

The Vancouver mine developer’s controversial access road plan is being contested by Cat Lake First Nation, which is challenging the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s (MNRF) decision to issue permits to the company.

The leadership of the isolated community of 650 on-reserve members claim they have not been properly consulted and fear the proposed road “will cause irreparable harm” to the community, according to an affidavit filed by Chief Russell Wesley to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice against First Mining Gold and MNRF.

First Mining wants to build a second winter road into the company’s remote exploration camp at Springpole Lake, citing safety concerns with the existing ice road.

But the company received notice from Cat Lake’s lawyers last week that the community intends to challenge those permits, in asking the court to cease and desist all road construction.

In a Feb. 26 news release, the company said their lawyers huddled with legal representatives from Cat Lake and MNRF for a Feb. 23 hearing at which time a judged issued an interim order “staying the authorization of the ministry and pausing construction activities of the road.

As to the rationale behind the government's decision to issue the road permits, a MNRF spokesperson declined comment since the matter is before the courts.

Cat Lake Chief Russell Wesley cancelled an interview with Northern Ontario Business.

Springpole is an advanced stage open-pit gold mine development that involves draining a bay on Springpole Lake, and erecting a coffer dam to create a pit to reach a gold deposit beneath the lake bottom. It is undergoing a coordinated federal-provincial government environmental assessment. 

First Mining Gold has expressed confidence it will have all the necessary government approvals to begin construction of the multi-million-ounce deposit in 2025.

But to protect its interests, Cat Lake has initiated its own impact assessment process and passed a council resolution last year that imposes a mining moratorium in the expansive area covering its traditional land. 

Leadership of the community, closest to the Springpole site at 45 kilometres away, had voiced earlier concerns about the environmental impact of the mine project to the lake trout fishery. 

Now Cat Lake argues in court documents filed last week that this seasonal road runs through members’ hunting and trapping grounds, and possibly some sacred sites. 

In questioning the five-year road permit issued by the province to the company on Feb. 9. the community leadership claims few details on the road and its alignment have been provided to them for review.

The road under scrutiny would be an 18-kilometre temporary winter road from the end of the existing Wenasaga forestry road to the Springpole exploration camp, a site it’s maintained since 2015. It would be predominately an industry road, with some use provided to Indigenous harvesters, and would only be upon during the winter supply haul months. 

Cat Lake, like the company’s exploration camp, has no permanent year-round road access but there is a connecting winter ice road.

The company said camp supplies can be brought in overland during the winter months using a 40-kilometre, of which 34 kilometres is over ice with 21 kilometres of that over nearby Birch Lake.  

But First Mining said it harbours great concerns about the safety of this ice road due to mild winter conditions and the danger of transporting fuel and other material. The company said it’s been a topic of discussion with area Indigenous communities. 

By early 2023, the company said it approached the MNRF for authorization to build a second winter road into their site.

“Several accidents have been recorded involving vehicles breaking through the ice,” said the First Gold release.

The company said this second road into the site would “allow for the safe transport of supplies and people overland.”

"Warm winter conditions are impacting all who live and operate in the north," said Dan Wilton, CEO of First Mining in a statement.  "This Temporary Winter Road will allow First Mining to keep its focus on operating in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.  

In seeking to safeguard the environment, Cat Lake said it has initiated Ontario’s first Anishinaabe-led Impact Assessment (ALIA) on the Springpole project and to better the impact of mining on the people and environment. The process began last September and will be completed in March 2025.

First Mining, according to Cat Lake’s court documents, is contributing funds for this assessment. 

To reinforce its position, Cat Lake issued a moratorium last year on all mining-related activities on its traditional land, which they claim covers the Springpole project areas.

No development activity will take place, Cat Lake contends, until the ALIA is done. 

In his affidavit, Chief Russell Wesley said First Mining Gold’s winter access road seems to have legs beyond its seasonal status. The Springpole project description, in documents filed to the government, show some similarities to a proposed all-weather mine road to be built to connect Springpole to the Wenasaga forestry road 

Wilton added: “While it is disappointing that CLFN (Cat Lake) has chosen to oppose these important, temporary safety activities, First Mining continues to listen to the concerns of Indigenous communities and is always willing to meet with community leaders to discuss these and any other matters regarding our activities in their traditional territories."

The company maintains it is “always maintained an open door” in listening to Indigenous leadership in the area to understand potential exploration impacts on their rights and traditional land users. And since 2015, the company has “committed significant resources” toward community engagement and consultation efforts.