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Opponents to Mining Act changes accuse government of 'politicizing' the permitting process

Neskantaga chief will only meet with Premier Doug Ford to discuss the Ring of Fire

Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias said he’ll only deal with Ontario Premier Doug Ford when it comes to having a dialogue on the Ring of Fire. 

Moonias made his position clear in a virtual presentation with provincial politicians sitting on the Standing Committee for the Interior at an April 6 gathering in Sudbury on Bill 71, the Building More Mines Act, a raft of amendments being proposed for Ontario’s Mining Act.

Moonias said he won’t talk with the mining companies, not with any proponents, not with government staff, not even with cabinet ministers like Mines Minister George Pirie.

“I’m only going to talk to the premier.”

Two weeks ago, Moonias was at Queen’s Park with other communities to ask for a meeting with Premier Doug Ford to start a dialogue on the bill and on the Ring of Fire. 

Unable to secure a face-to-face meeting due to not making a written request to the Premier’s Office, Moonias was escorted out of the visitors' gallery in the Legislature for making outbursts directed to the premier that there will no development in the Ring of Fire.

“Well, I don’t have to write a letter to anybody,” said Moonias, during the hearing. Ford will have to come to him for a meeting.

“I made it clear to his people that that’s the way it’s going to be. I don’t have to write a letter begging for his attention.”

Even though Neskantaga is about 100 kilometres away from the Ring of Fire, the community has overlapping territorial claims to the area. 

Moonias insists that any activity that occurs on their lands must have Neskantaga’s free, prior and informed consent.

Proper consultation and accommodation, he said, happens “in the community, with the people” and that obligation is on the Ontario government, beginning with the premier. To date, he said, Ontario has not offered anything.

“There hasn’t been any representative from Ontario that has stepped into our community for the past several years to do any consultation.”

With Bill 71, the Ford government wants to expedite permits and approvals to get more new mines into production faster. There’s a looming demand for critical minerals such as nickel, copper and lithium to feed the electric vehicle battery manufacturing plants under construction in southern Ontario.

The bill passed second reading in early March and was handed off to the committee to take it on the road for hearings on the amendments in Timmins on April 5 and Sudbury a day later.

Mine and access road development in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire in the isolated James Bay region figures prominently in the government’s plans.

Northern Indigenous communities like Neskantaga have threatened legal action and have said they’re willing to put their lives at stake to stop mining, maintaining they haven’t been adequately consulted on the impact of road and industrial development.

The manner upon which Bill 71 was introduced in early March, prior to the PDAC mining conference in Toronto, received a stern rebuke from Neskantaga and the other eight communities of the Matawa First Nations, including the two communities who are proponents of a north-south industrial and community road network into the region. 

The community leaders were upset that they were only “advised” of the bill, not consulted, shortly before its introduction in the Legislature.

Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong, representing Neskantaga and other Far North communities, said the provincial governments needs to do a better job of engaging with all the communities in the region, not just the ones closest to the site of development. 

“We need to have dialogue. We need to have a process right now. It’s the divide-and-conquer approach and that’s not great.”

“What that does is create a lot of confusion among nations,” said Mamakwa. “It’s part of the colonial playbook that’s been played for hundreds of years and this government is playing right by that book.” 

Among the proposed changes to the Mining Act in the bill is consolidating more decision-making power in the hands of Mines Minister George Pirie, a former mining executive, empowering him to replace the province’s director of mines rehabilitation and act as director of exploration, at his discretion.

For Brennain Lloyd, project coordinator of Northwatch, a regional environmental group, that’s too much power and responsibility left in the hands of one person while reducing bureaucratic input. It will lead to a “politicization” of the process and “ad hoc decisionmaking.”

She also takes issue with changes to mine closure plans and the upfront money — known as financial assurance — that companies must now set aside to ensure mine sites are properly remediated and returned to a natural state once mining activities are concluded.

She said allowing companies to begin mining operations prior to filing a full closure plan and permitting them to provide “phased” financial assurances for remediation takes industry standards “back decades.”

In examining the proposed amendments to the Mining Act, Lloyd further objected to mine operations being allowed to begin before full baseline environmental studies are finished, adding this does not allow for adequate consultation with First Nations for a mine project that is not “fully designed” from start to finish.

“Erasure” of the position of the director of mines rehabilitation, Lloyd said, will only lead to more abandoned mines and the lack of environmental accountability in the future. Mines Minister Pirie has years of experience in mining, she said, but he is not a subject matter expert on baseline studies and closure plans. 

“This is not good governance. This is the full politicization of the permitting process.”

She asked the committee to “put the brakes on” these changes.

Sudbury MPP Jamie West, a former Vale employee of 17 years, who voted twice for Bill 71, said many amendments have to be made before he will support it at final reading.

He questions the proposed removal of the mines rehabilitation director and giving more power to the mines minster, calling it a “politically driven decision” that gives the public the impression that partisan decisions are being made in favour of one particular party rather than deciding what’s best for the province.

West also said the Ford government needs to perform better on building meaningful relationships with First Nations, especially with the way Bill 71 was introduced. 

“Consultation, the way the government is doing now, is the way companies used to do it 20 or 30 years ago where they show up with a piece of paper (and) say 'This is what we’re doing' and they leave.”

West said there can be no meaningful relationship with First Nations when a chief at Queen’s Park says “you’ll have to drag our dead bodies away” because the premier refuses to have a meeting.

West also expressed disappointment that the government committee hearings weren’t scheduled for Thunder Bay in northwestern Ontario where the bulk of mineral exploration is taking place.

“Why are we asking people to travel a thousand kilometres to come talk about development we want to do on their land?"