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Staking rush puts northwest Indigenous communities on the defensive

Four First Nations call for an end to free entry prospecting in Ontario
Leadership from four northwestern Ontario First Nations met in Grassy Narrows this week to sign a Mutual Cooperation Agreement (Free Grassy Twitter photo).

Four Indigenous communities in northwestern Ontario and the Far North are forming a "land defence alliance" to stop an "incursion" by prospectors and exploration companies on their traditional lands. 

Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI), Wapakeka, Neskantaga and Asubpeesschoseewagong Anishnabek (Grassy Narrows) signed a Mutual Cooperation Agreement, Jan. 31, to protect their collective lands and waters. It's response to "mounting concerns about encroachment" by the mining industry. 

The leadership are pinning the blame on Premier Doug Ford who, they say, has ignored their demands to abolish the free entry system and has encouraged a staking rush with “thousands of new claims” in their traditional territories since 2018.

The First Nations leadership were not available for an interview but in a news release they said a bone of contention is that prospectors aren’t required to give notice to nearby First Nations until after the claim has been registered in the province’s online claim staking system.

And Ontario, they said, does not give notice to First Nations until after the claims are purchased. These explorers do not have the “consent of the Indigenous people who live there.”

The leadership further said Ford has ignored their requests for a meeting.

In a statement, Sol Mamakwa, MPP for Kiiwetinoong, supported the communities in exercising their inherent rights.

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“The right to self-determination is an inherent right upheld by our people and does not come from other governments. I urge the Ford and federal governments to uphold and honour the inherent rights of all First Nations across Ontario and not work against these assertions.”

Ontario switched to an online mineral claim-staking system in 2018 to encourage foreign investment. Similar systems are in place in other provinces.

Northwestern Ontario has increasingly become an exploration hot bed for lithium, platinum group metals, and other critical minerals that the world wants to make the transition to zero-carbon technologies.  The region has attracted substantial investment from countries like Australia. The Paterson Lake area, near Grassy Narrows, has become a very prospective area for lithium.

A decade ago, conflict over exploration involving KI, some junior mining companies, and the province resulted in then-Northern Development and Mines Minister Rick Bartolucci withdrawing 23,000 square kilometres of land, declaring it off-limits to exploration. That moratorium still remains in effect.

Now, two of the communities – KI and Wapakeka – have vowed to “protect” a 13,000-square-kilometre of the Fawn River watershed, an area they say is a travel route and is used for fishing and hunting. 

Grassy Narrows said it’s also calling on Queen’s Park to respect a 7,000-square-kilometre Indigenous Protected Area and withdraw it from mining and logging activity.

The communities also want some historic grievances addressed with the province.

An emailed response from the Ministry of Mines said the “Crown’s Duty to Consult obligations will be met on all projects across the province, including in the resource sectors," to promote reconciliation, build positive relationships and advance resource opportunities while ensuring environmental safeguards are in place.

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Ontario Prospectors Association executive director Garry Clark said this is not a good look for a country intent on promoting critical minerals to the world.

"It's going to hurt explorers in Ontario, eventually.”

Clark finds Indignous communities by and large want mineral exploration. Some want it on their own terms.

"They want to run their own Mining Act, basically."

Clark said there are often instances where claims are staked near a First Nation community but no field work takes place because a nearby Indigenous community won’t allow it. And it’s happening more and more, he said.

There have been industry complaints of delays in obtaining government permits to advance projects. 

Clark points to the north shore of Lake Superior with the Ginoogaming First Nation case and other disputes. In some situations, prospectors and companies walk away from projects.

Through his Thunder Bay consulting business, Clark said he has clients and knows of prospectors, including Indigenous folks, who can't obtain permits, sometimes in the area they live, because of First Nation objections.

"The community didn't support letting people on the land."

Clark said Ontario’s free entry system doesn’t mean people’s rights are being trampled. There are checks and balances in place, he said, through the plans and permits process.

As prospectors, Clark said, “the most we can do, more or less, is go out and prospect, which is walk the land and take some samples using a hammer and maybe some hand tools.”

Once exploration advances into an activity deemed impactful on the land, it falls under the plans and permits system. That involves getting approvals from federal and provincial regulatory agencies before permits are issued. 

Permits can contain negotiated stipulations as to when explorers must avoid carrying out work on claims, such as during hunting season or at a time of caribou calving, Clark said.

"The land is fairly protected."

The purpose of the digital claims map is to allow people to closely monitor staked ground. Updated monthly maps are sent to impacted communities showing exploration activity in their area, Clark said. Prospectors are also sent government notice of their responsibility to follow the rules.

Another reason why companies and prospectors aren’t obtaining permits in a timely fashion is a very risk-adverse approach taken by the province.

Clark said the Ontario government has reached a point where the courts and attorney general "have to be confident that consent is there, that consultation has been completed.”

A prospector can arrange a meeting with a First Nation community, he said, but the government must have a degree of confidence that the duty to consult has been met before a permit is issued. “We’ve done it on their behalf.”

Clark doesn't know if more government consultation with the communities is the answer. 

To change the narrative, he suggests government should promote more industry-Indigenous success stories, alluding to the Musselwhite Mine agreement which has been in place for 25 years.

"Ontario has to show the wins."

More knowledge of how the industry works, Clark said, has to be shared. The communities need to see that there an economic benefit for them.