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First Nations mull legal action, plan protests over Ontario's online mining claims system

Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare is urging Ontario to adopt a one-year freeze on new mining claims to address First Nations concerns about their rights. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)
Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare is urging Ontario to adopt a one-year freeze on new mining claims to address First Nations concerns about their rights. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press - image credit)

First Nations leaders say they'll up their protests and consider legal action if the Ontario government refuses to address their concerns with the province's online system for staking mining claims.

A 2018 move to digitize this process, which previously had prospectors physically hammer posts in the ground, has prompted an "unprecedented" and overwhelming surge in claims, the Chiefs of Ontario said last week.

The organization, which advocates for 133 First Nations province-wide, outlined demands for a one-year moratorium on new claims in a letter sent to provincial leaders.

"This moratorium is a result of the ongoing infringement of the inherent, treaty, and constitutional rights of individual First Nations," wrote Ontario Regional Chief Glen Hare.

He added they respected those First Nations that intend to pursue mining.

Chief Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows, also known as Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation, plans to back the proposed pause — plus any direct action and court challenges.

"We will support anything that could stall the process or stop it, whether it's through the courts or whether it's on the field, with blockades or whatever we need to do," he said.

Hare's letter is addressed to Premier Doug Ford, Mines Minister George Pirie and Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford.

Ford's government has already rejected this request once, however, via letter to Reginald Niganobe, grand council chief of the Anishinabek Nation, which represents 39 First Nations in Ontario.

"At this time, Ontario does not consider a moratorium on mining activities an appropriate measure to resolve your concerns," wrote Afsana Qureshi, assistant deputy minister with Ontario's Ministry of Mines, in the December 2022 letter obtained by CBC Indigenous.

Pirie's office wouldn't confirm if this remains the ministry's position.

"It's just another delaying tactic. This has been a long-going issue," said Niganobe.

"It appears that nothing short of some sort of legal action will ever change any of this."

The chiefs point to a September 2023 court decision from British Columbia, which concluded B.C.'s online mining system adversely impacts First Nations rights, triggering the Crown's duty to consult.

Claims surge

As of November 2023, Niganobe's organization tracked 164,036 claims within its territory, an increase of 35,163 claims since May 2023, according to data provided by the Chiefs of Ontario.

The chiefs cite research by the conservation organization Wildlands League, which says that mining claims grew more than 28 per cent in number and 30 per cent in area in the Ring of Fire, a vast suspected mineral cache in northern Ontario, between 2022 and 2023.

The Ring of Fire mineral deposits are in the James Bay lowlands and surrounded by northern Ontario First Nations.
The Ring of Fire mineral deposits are in the James Bay lowlands and surrounded by northern Ontario First Nations.

The Ring of Fire mineral deposits are in the James Bay lowlands and surrounded by northern Ontario First Nations. (CBC)

The area is about 5,000 square kilometres in the James Bay lowlands, 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, a wetland believed to contain deposits of chromite, cobalt, nickel, copper and platinum.

In 2018, Ford famously pledged to build roads to the Ring of Fire "if I have to hop on a bulldozer myself." Since then, his government's legislative amendments have stretched First Nations' capacity to respond, Hare wrote.

Turtle, whose community is roughly 150 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, isn't surprised.

"We know that Ford has said that he'll bulldoze the North, and it seems like he's holding to his word," he said.

"We're very opposed to that, and we will continue to oppose that."

The projects have support from Marten Falls First Nation and Webequie First Nation — the proponents behind the roads in question. But resistance networks are expanding, said Turtle.

Members of the Land Defence Alliance, left to right, Chief Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows First Nation, Sol Mamakwa MPP, Elder Alex Moonias from Neskantaga First Nation and Cecilia Begg from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation hold a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Tuesday, September 26, 2023.
Members of the Land Defence Alliance, left to right, Chief Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows First Nation, Sol Mamakwa MPP, Elder Alex Moonias from Neskantaga First Nation and Cecilia Begg from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation hold a press conference at Queen's Park in Toronto on Tuesday, September 26, 2023.

Members of the Land Defence Alliance, left to right, Chief Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows First Nation, MPP Sol Mamakwa, Elder Alex Moonias from Neskantaga First Nation and Cecilia Begg from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation hold a news conference at Queen's Park in Toronto last September. (Carlos Osorio/The Canadian Press)

The Land Defence Alliance, a loose coalition of leaders preparing to stand up for their rights, recently welcomed its sixth member, Chief Jeffrey Copenace of the Ojibways of Onigaming.

"We'll be meeting to plan our next protest. We will just continue protesting and continue pressuring," said Turtle.

Meaningful talks wanted, not 'lip service'

Ford's office did not reply to a request for comment. Pirie and Rickford's offices deferred to a supplied statement.

"Ontario meets the Crown's duty to consult obligations on all resource projects across the province," wrote Curtis Lindsay, spokesperson for Ontario's Indigenous Affairs ministry.

Hare's letter disputes this claim politely but Sol Mamakwa, NDP MPP for Kiiwetinoong and the Opposition Indigenous and treaty relations critic, is less diplomatic.

"That statement is BS," said Mamakwa.

"With that non-response, they're shooting themselves in the foot, because it will drive industry away."

Mamakwa said the Ford government risks hindering development down the road by not acting on the concerns now.

Garry Clark, director of the Ontario Prospectors Association, told CBC Sudbury last week, "If Ontario shut down for a year, then people would go to other places."

Niganobe said First Nations, while they need time to mull their options, still have hope the province will negotiate.

"We're always open to it — but meaningful negotiations, too," he said.

"We're not just there for lip service or time wasting."