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Northwest First Nation wants to bring a stop to mine road construction

Cat Lake seeks injunction to halt First Mining Gold’s access road, pending judicial review
First Mining Gold Springpole project (Ausenco photo)
First Mining Gold's Springpole Project camp site (Company photo)

A northwestern Ontario First Nation in close proximity to First Mining Gold’s Springpole Project is heading to court, seeking to stop construction of an access road to the proposed mine site.

Cat Lake First Nation imposed a mining moratorium in 2023 on all mining-related activity within its traditional territory, which includes the Vancouver mine developer’s open-pit project

In a news release this week, the leadership of the remote Ojibway community said with construction of the 18-kilometre road “underway at a fast pace” and the province and First Mining Gold refusing to stop, they have filed documents with the Superior Court of Justice in Thunder Bay for an injunction to bring road construction to a halt, pending Cat Lake’s application for a judicial review.

The proposed road under scrutiny extends from the end of the Wenasaya Road to the Springpole site.

Cat Lake leadership points the finger of blame at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) for issuing road permits in face of repeated opposition from Cat Lake and “in defiance” of their mining moratorium.

“The OMNRF permit approval has significantly destabilized this situation,” said Chief Russell Wesley in a statement.

“Ontario’s actions here fall far below their constitutional duty to consult and accommodate Cat Lake’s rights.”

Cat Lake, 180 kilometres north of Sioux Lookout, is reachable by land through winter roads. The rest of the year, it’s a fly-in/fly-out community for the 480 on-reserve members.

Springpole is billed by the company as Canada’s largest undeveloped gold project. It’s in the advanced stage of a federal and provincial environmental assessment process. First Mining expects to receive approvals to proceed with construction of the multi-million-ounce deposit in 2025.

Cat Lake is the closest community to Springpole, only 40 kilometres from where the company wants to drain a bay on the northern part of Springpole Lake to access a deposit by carving out an open-pit mine.

The community has concerns about lake trout habitat with the mine, but also harbours concerns about the road’s alignment and the potential impact on local hunting, fishing and trapping ground, as well as on sacred sites containing pictographs and burial grounds of members’ ancestors.

The First Nation said the company and government are pressing on without community consent. Time is needed to assess these impacts. 

“Once such a road is built — cutting down trees, harming local wildlife habitat used by moose caribou and wolverine, depleting fish stocks, damaging sacred Cat Lake cultural sites, and disturbing Cat Lake burial grounds — such actions, and their harms, cannot be undone,” said Wesley in the release.

“Only the requested orders can prevent such harms until the serious issues in the underlying application are heard on the merits.”

Wesley contends the province has placed the economic interests of the mining company over the safety and well-being of his members.

"We demand equal treatment and consideration for the well-being of our people as we continue to work towards protecting our rights and land," he stated.

First Mining Gold did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in a January investor call, CEO Dan Wilton expressed a “very high degree of confidence” Springpole will get environmental assessment (EA) approval.

Based on the pro-mining support of the Ontario government, Wilton expressed confidence Springpole will be the next large gold project to be permitted in the province. Queen’s Park is keen, he said, to extend road and power infrastructure into remote areas to connect mines and to benefit Cat Lake and other communities.

The company’s draft EA submission, which was filed in May 2022, has “been reviewed by everyone that needs to say yes to this project,” said Wilton.

The final EA submission, to be filed this summer, incorporates all the feedback from Indigenous communities and regulators, he said.

Wilton said there have been “lots of discussions” with the communities, which will lead to a greater understanding of the project and a formalized relationship with the communities through agreements signed, likely, next year. He said they are targetting to secure community consent in advance of a final EA approval.

Wilton had acknowledged in an earlier investor call last December that Cat Lake “has expressed to us that they don’t want to see mining activity in the area,” but discussions continue with them on how Springpole might take shape in order to build consensus for the project.