A Thunder Bay mineral symposium of the Matawa First Nations tribal council in February could be a raucous affair.
The aggressive push by Cliffs Natural Resources and Canada Chrome to develop a $1.5 billion chromite deposit in the James Bay 'Ring of Fire' and ore haul railroad has drawn heat from one remote community.
Last week about 15 protesters from Marten Falls First Nation pitched tents last week at Kopper and McFauld's Lakes near the exploration camps of Noront Resources and Freewest Resources.
“We're prepared to stay there as long as possible,” said Chief Eli Moonias, who isn't pleased that Canada Chrome has staked mineral claims along a 350-kilometre long proposed rail corridor between McFauld's Lake and the Town of Nakina in northwestern, Ontario.
He's angry the staking was done in advance of the implementation of the Ontario's Far North Planning Act and wants Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Minister Michael Gravelle to “claw back” those claims.
Moonias said his community of 300 was not consulted by Canada Chrome and claims the McFauld's Lake deposits and most of the proposed railroad corridor falls within Marten Falls' traditional territory.
We don't like this underhanded business,” said Moonias. “They should have come to the community to do that.”
Moonias said he told ministry officials in December he wanted a community-based land use plan that will include their 10-year-old strategy for an access road running into the James Bay Lowlands and eventually linking up with Attawapiskat on the coast.
Moonias said his community's position is to support the mine provided their corridor plan is adopted, but Canada Chrome has largely ignored this.
He said the mining companies and Queen's Park must address a list of concerns and wants an agreement signed with the mining companies before the protest camps are pulled out.
Canada Chrome, a subsidiary of KWG Resources has been dealing with the Matawa First Nation, a tribal council representing nine area communities, including Marten Falls.
But Moonias said the council doesn't speak for his community.
“They've got nothing to do with traditional territories. What happens there is our business.”
KWG Resources and Canada Chrome president and CEO Frank Smeenk chalked up the protest to an internal squabble inside the council.
“We were given to understand that we were to follow a protocol by the nine members of Matawa Council,” said Smeenk, referring to the Matawa Interim Mineral Measures protocol. “Now we are to understand that's not necessarily the case.”
Moonias said he never agreed to any such protocol.
“I never heard of it. I've got nothing to do with that.”
Smeenk said it's obvious Marten Falls wants to be consulted with separately.
“Eli's trying to get attention to a cause and one of those is one that pre-dates all of us, a plan for a winter road.”
Smeenk said he met Moonias in Thunder Bay this month after hearing of the community's plan to blockade of airstrips at McFauld's and Kopper Lakes.
He said the protest may be a negotiating ploy to force the government to re-open an illegal airstrip in the Ring of Fire along the Muketei River closed down last November by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Marten Falls had partnered with Wilderness North Air to provide a logistic support base for the exploration efforts.
The MNR said the development of this airstrip was not authorized and a warrant was authorized under the Public Lands Act prohibiting the use and occupation of this airstrip. A restriction remains in place until a final decision is made by the MNR regarding an ongoing investigation and review of the airstrip proposal.
Smeenk said his company has no objections to the airstrip being permitted for use.
Canada Chrome's proposed rail route follows glacier eskers that run north-south through the swampy terrain between Nakina and McFauld's Lake.
“If God had a place for a railroad to go that would be it,” said Smeenk.
With an adjoining service road, Smeenk said nearby communities could access it with branch roads as well as run fibre optics and power lines.
Moonias said he met privately with Smeenk in Thunder Bay before Christmas to discuss the transportation corridor and said the company president “made some overtures.”
Last September, Marten Falls signed a compensation agreement with Noront Resources for past exploration work already performed at their exploration camp. Moonias said it amounted to $2 per metre for holes already drilled, but added no agreements for future exploration work has been signed with Noront or any other company.
Noront said in a Jan. 18 statement,despite the inconvenience of a “logistics halt” at their ice airstrip” it was supporting the actions of Marten Falls.
Moonias said a meeting is scheduled next week with government officials and some mining players in Marten Falls.
He wants the mining companies to use their winter toll roads to haul fuel and bulk items, and for the government to allow them to finish construction of an airstrip to create a service hub for McFauld's Lake.
“We're saying let's build this strip where the ground is good for the environment and let us build the camps there and do business.”
Moonias said some companies had been landing on the partially-completed airstrip last fall. “We told the MNR about it and they shut it down. We're trying to finish that so we can start building our camps there to do business.”
He also wants jobs and contracts to service these camps instead of the companies bringing in outside suppliers and support personnel.
Moonias also wants an environmental clean-up and compensation at McFauld's Lake for raw sewage, grey water, fuel and chemical spills dumped by exploration companies in the summer of 2007.
Smeenk expressed confidence the issue could be resolved to benefit all and doesn't suspect the protest will raise any red flags with Cliffs Natural Resources.
“The First Nations just want to figure out how to get our attention.”
He said it may involve community ownership of the enterprise and didn't rule out a First Nation equity stake in the project.
When asked if the Ontario government was actively involved helping in mediating the dispute, Smeenk paused and said he found he found MNDMF and MNR staff to be “exceedingly helpful and careful of everyone's rights.”
Anne-Marie Flanagan, spokeswoman for Michael Gravelle, said the ministry is talking with all the parties toward resolving a “complicated situation” that involves the MNR, the air strip and how people in the Far North can all benefit.
“We're looking into the whole situation because this is something that's going to have to be sorted out big time and rather quickly when you look at what Cliffs is doing.
“There has to be reasonable decisions by the First Nation about what they want to go ahead with and how they want to do it.”
Gravelle is scheduled to deliver a speech Feb. 10 at the symposium.
Ontario's newly revised Mining Act includes a dispute resolution mechanism for issues between First Nations and mining companies, but the details of how it is supposed to work has yet to be defined since the government is conducting another round of public consultation.