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Northwest mine developer settles dispute with First Nation neighbour

Cat Lake First Nation accepts government proposal on access road to First Mining Gold's Springpole Project
First Mining Gold Springpole Project (aerial photo)
First Mining Gold's Springpole Project (Company photo)

First Mining Gold said a resolution has been reached with Cat Lake First Nation involving a disputed temporary access road to the gold company’s exploration camp in northwestern Ontario that halted construction last winter.

In a June 20 news release, the Vancouver company said Cat Lake accepted a settlement offer on June 17 on a proposal from the provincial Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF), thus ending a judicial review process.

The ministry was the provincial agency that issued construction permits to First Mining early last February for an 18-kilometre-long temporary winter access into the Springpole Project exploration site to bring in supplies and people over a five-year period.

Cat Lake immediately challenged those permits in court, the community arguing it had not been properly consulted by the MNRF. A judge’s interim order stayed the ministry’s authority to issue those permits.

The substance of this proposal was not included in the release.

A spokesperson for Cat Lake was contacted, but a response was not immediately forthcoming.

Cat Lake is 40 kilometres from the future mine site and 180 kilometres from Sioux Lookout.

First Mining said in the release that it continues to meet with the leadership from Cat Lake regarding the company’s activities on the community’s traditional land “with the goal of building collaborative, respectful long-term relationships.”

First Mining is proposing to drain a bay on a remote lake, 110 kilometres east of Red Lake, to build an open-pit gold mine.

To service the operation, a more permanent road into the site will be constructed for both industrial and area community use to connect with the provincial highway system.

The company intends to submit its final environmental assessment (EA) document for the mine project to both provincial and federal regulators this summer. The estimated timeline for approval and the issuance of permits to proceed with mine development could be a year and half. 

In a June 13 online discussion with investors about the permitting process, First Mining’s vice-president of sustainability, Steve Lines, said this dispute does not impact the bigger permitting picture to build the mine.

In response to a viewer question, Lines said this dispute is a “separate, mini-project itself” outside of the EA approvals process for the mine, which will have an all-season double-lane gravel road leading into the site to during the mine's construction and operation.

“In my mind, that does not impact the Springpole EA and the associated regulatory approvals for the Springpole mine project itself.

“They’re just two separate things.”

Lines explained, historically, there had been a winter supply road that crossed a frozen lake.  

“There were a few accidents … the situation became too risky to continue building that type of an ice road so we went for an overland route.”

The provincial building permits for the new route arrived Feb. 9 and by Feb. 21 legal counsel at Cat Lake asked for a judicial review in challenging the consultation process carried out by MNRF on those permits. The court-granted interim stay on the permits stopped road construction.

Lines pointed out the area is under-serviced by way of infrastructure and social services. 

Beyond just delivering mining jobs to locals, he said planning all the mine-related infrastructure involves designing a permanent road that will connect Cat Lake to Sioux Lookout, a regional administrative hub for many remote Indigenous communities.

He said there are sections of existing roads, “in terrible shape,” with no evidence of maintenance, that are used by neighbouring Slate Falls First Nation. 

“We’re hoping to be able to drive some of the infrastructure upgrades across this region for the benefit of multiple communities and other parties as well.”

First Mining CEO Dan Wilton added, based on feedback from a recent community meeting in Cat Lake, construction of a permanent road continues to be a local priority. The company is supportive of this infrastructure and hopes the provincial and federal governments can make that a reality.