By IAN ROSS
An Ontario Superior Court Justice has ruled exploratory drilling can resume on a controversial mineral claim in a remote part of northwestern Ontario.
In a Thunder Bay courtroom May 1, Justice G. P. Smith ruled Aurora-based junior miner Platinex Inc. can start a 24-hole test drilling campaign after their exploration program was shut down last year following a protest by residents of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (K. I.) First Nation.
The court ordered both parties to reach a consultation protocol, timetable and memorandum of understanding by May 15. The earliest Platinex can begin exploration is June 1.
The Ontario government has committed to be present during these proceedings.
Platinex’s exploration for a prospective chromium-platinum group element (PGE) deposit has been halted since February 2006, when residents of the K. I. First Nation protested the activity on their traditional lands, claiming they were not properly consulted by the miner. They imposed a moratorium against mineral development.
The remote fly-in community of 1,200 Ojibwe-Cree, formerly known as Big Trout Lake, is located 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.
Last summer, Platinex sued the community for $10 billion but Justice Smith sided with the K. I. band and upheld the band’s counter-injunction application, blaming the Ontario government for failing in it’s “non-delegable duty” to consult with the Native band.
In a May 2 statement, Northern Development and Mines Minister Rick Bartolucci says the government remains committed to reaching a resolution through “meaningful” consultation.
“Any process that brings parties back together and encourages greater understanding of each others’ concerns is a positive development.”
Platinex President and CEO Jim Trusler says resuming any exploration at Big Trout Lake by June 1 is likely premature, since his company needs to raise funds and secure a drill rig.
“The court schedule is optimistic, but we want to ensure the community is onside with the whole process,” says Trusler, who was hopeful of starting the first phase of a larger 80-hole program sometime this summer.
The court-ordered protocol must identify potentially sensitive Native burial sites near the Platinex claim and outline any environmental impacts on hunting and trapping grounds. The band must be a participant in all decision-making on-site and the company must make use of local supplies, services, labour as well as provide some unspecified financial compensation to the community.
Because of the distances involved, a trial monitor has been appointed to oversee the whole process through regularly-scheduled teleconferences.
The court reserves the right to halt drilling at any time if it’s not satisfied with the consultation progress.
Trusler says there’s been many problems with expectations that must be dealt with, but adds Justice Smith’s ruling gives both parties the tools to resolve the dispute.
The removal of legal barriers means his company can begin patching up relations, says Trusler.
“I don’t think relations were ever that bad with the community,” he says, calling the protest a “struggle between First Nations and government” stemming from Native alienation in mineral exploration activity.
“It’s a feeling of desperation and abandonment. We’re just the meat in the sandwich here.”
But Queen’s Park must demonstrate a commitment toward a workable consultation process, Trusler says, “otherwise it’s going to shut down exploration in northwestern Ontario.
“No one wants to go through what we’re going through.”
Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug spokesman John Cutfeet says the judgement should empower First Nation leaders to insist the rule of law be followed.
Cutfeet says the band would consult with the community and legal counsel in mid-May before meeting with the province and Platinex shortly afterward to begin work on the MOU and consultation process.
Though satisfied with the ruling, Cutfeet expressed disappointment Queen’s Park and Ottawa have been unwilling to adhere to their own consultation rules and recognize related Supreme Court decisions.
“It’s unfortunate we have to go to this length to try and ensure that the duty to consult and accommodate is enforced by this government.”
The band also challenges the Ontario Mining Act for not “prioritizing” Treaty rights contained in the Canadian Constitution. He argues Native consultation should be attached to any mineral exploration activity permit.
Cutfeet says the community developed its own six-step consultation plan in 2000 to deal with development but couldn’t get the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines to sign on.
Their locally-drafted protocol provides for a community referendum to ratify any Native-industry agreement.
The community wants assurances drilling will not adversely impact the land and nearby rivers and lakes used by neighbouring reserves.
When Cutfeet visited the Platinex site, he observed scattered debris in the bush of old drill cores, pipes and cables, though he was unsure when this activity took place. Previous drilling by other miners had taken place during the 1970s and 1980s.
Trusler says Platinex was only in the early stages of exploration in 2006, and had yet to begin drilling, when they abandoned their camp because of the Native blockade. “They’re still sitting with camp and materials that cost us $300,000 to put in place.
“We’re not blaming this on the First Nations, we’re blaming this on the government can’t get their act together with the First Nation.”
Trusler, who previously worked for International Platinum and Falconbridge, is familiar with the Big Trout Lake property when Inco searched for nickel in the 1970s and hit a large chromium deposit.
He says the property has potentially some of the best commercial intersections of PGE’s in North America.
Though sparsely tested for PGE’s, one 1981 drill hole intersected seven grams per tonne platinum-palladium over two metres.
Other drilling by Inco and Canadian Occidental Petroleum yielded assay of 15 grams platinum-palladium over 1 metre and 8.4 grams over 2.3 metres platinum and palladium.
Trusler had dealt with the local band and council in the mid-1980s “with no difficulty,” some of whom even came out to observe drilling.
He says a key element to the success of the Big Trout Lake project is obtaining the community’s cooperation who stand to economically benefit through jobs and skills training.