Two First Nation communities in the James Bay region are drawing a line in the sand to make it clear that the mineral-rich Ring of Fire sits within their traditional territory.
The leadership of Marten Falls and Webequie insist if an upcoming federal environmental assessment to study the impacts of mining in the Far North is to be an Indigenous-led process, they'll be the ones leading it, "without exception."
In a March 17 joint news release, the two communities struck a diplomatic and respectful but firm tone in asserting their traditional territorial claims to the prospective world-class mining camp, located 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.
In recent weeks and months, there have been increasing calls from outlying First Nation communities, environmental groups, as well as Marten Fall's and Webequie's own tribal council, demanding a reboot to Ottawa's Regional Assessment process, first initiated in February 2020.
Critics of the federal approach want it taken out of the hands of the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada and placed entirely under the control of the Indigenous communities in the region.
Two years in, the Regional Assessment is in the early draft agreement stage. Public comments were taken over the winter to establish the scope and breadth of study for this new and untried assessment method. It seems to have ratcheted up the call for change.
Some outlying First Nations - hundreds of kilometres away from the exploration grounds - have made overlapping territorial claims to the Ring of Fire.
In their release, Marten Falls and Webequie wanted to establish that isn't the case.
The current study area for the Regional Assessment encompasses the Ring of Fire mineral claims and exploration area, which Marten Falls and Webequie contend is on their territory.
In a recent letter sent to their tribal council, Marten Falls and Webequie said they clarified to Matawa First Nations leadership that they have been the stewards of their land "since time immemorial and have no reason to give up that responsibility today or in the future."
Marten Falls and Webequie are roughly 100 kilometres southeast and west, respectively, from the Ring of Fire mineral deposits. The two First Nations are overseeing the provincial environmental assessments (EA) for the access roads into the remote area.
From their perspective, the communities said they're comfortable with the provincial EA process as it involves the "highest level of regulatory scrutiny" and incorporates their protocols and requirements into the process.
They view the federal assessment as an "extra process-oriented step" but they'll work with the federal agency to determine its efficacy and value for them.
The two communities said they recognize that other First Nations across the region may be impacted in some way by mining development, so the leadership of Marten Falls and Webequie propose a "tiered-relationship model" for communities to bring forward their concerns directly to them.
In the release, Marten Falls Chief Bruce Achneepineskum supports an Indigenous-led federal assessment but reiterated his community and Webequie will steer the process according to "our community values, traditions, and protocols," just as they would respect the rights of other communities to do the same on their lands.
Acheepineskum added they welcome dialogue and consultation with other communities, "but our rights cannot be diluted."
Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse remarked they welcome any process that encourages sustainable development and mitigates negative impacts in the Ring of Fire area. He hinted his community and Marten Falls expects to enter into a federal agreement to incorporate this assessment process into their territory.
To Wabasse, the Regional Assessment "is not a tool to stop development but to better prepare and protect the environment for the generations to come."