Natives, mining firm dig in their heels in 11-year long dispute
- Natives, mining firm dig in their heels in 11-year long dispute
Remote reserve squares off against Toronto-based Platinex over land claims north of Thunder Bay
Winnipeg - From Tuesday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Monday, Aug. 31, 2009 10:59PM EDT
In purely physical terms, it was a duel between a Beaver floatplane and a small aluminum skiff.
But the symbolic heft of the brief standoff on Nemeigusabins Lake last Wednesday was far greater.
In the boat sat a lone man, Donny Morris, chief of the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation, a fly-in community 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay that has vowed to stop a mining company drilling for platinum on their traditional lands.
Aboard the plane, representatives from the company, Toronto-based Platinex, were trying to land on a lake that abuts 221 mining claims it has in the area.
The plane swooped down several times, but the man steering the boat blocked their passage, and the plane finally buzzed off toward the horizon.
It was the latest chapter in an 11-year land-claims saga, one that pits a remote reserve against a tiny mining company, and Ontario's 136-year-old mining legislation against an obligation for the province and developers to consult native groups.
"Legally, the company might be allowed to come back," Mr. Morris said. "But we won't let them set up. That's where we hunt and fish and always have. It's our livelihood. We don't want any development on that site."
Under Ontario's 1873 Mining Act, anyone with a prospector's licence can stake mineral claims anywhere in the province, virtually heedless of property rights or aboriginal concerns. Revisions to the free-entry legislation that would require more aboriginal consultation have entered second reading in the legislature, but likely wouldn't effect the Platinex case.
Until then, "it's a system where mining supersedes all else," said Anna Baggio, director of conservation land-use planning with Wildlands League, an environmental group working with the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, also known as the KI. "Ecological values are not taken into consideration."
And so, when James Trusler bought mining rights to the area in 1998, he saw few barriers to exploring a site he believes is one of the world's richest deposits of platinum and chromium. He launched Platinex to do just that and began speaking with the KI about the site.
But that conversation came to an abrupt end in 2006 when the province informed Platinex that it would either have to assay the site or risk losing the claim. Mr. Trusler said the order prompted him to forgo consultations with natives and send workers to the lake. When those workers were blocked by native protesters, Platinex and the KI First Nation launched a series of lawsuits and injunction applications that eventually sent Mr. Morris and five other KI protesters to jail and granted Platinex legal access to the land.
Even after spending several days in jail, Mr. Morris and the KI First Nation are refusing to acknowledge the latter ruling, arguing that it rests on a 1929 treaty that was designed to hoodwink the aboriginal leadership of the day.
"In those days, we didn't know the English language," Mr. Morris said. "We just sat down and signed an X."
Even so, subsequent Supreme Court decisions bind the province to consult natives before development takes place on their traditional land.
"We have been very actively engaged in trying to bring Platinex and KI together," said Michael Gravelle, Ontario's Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry. "Tensions right now are very high."
But both the KI and Platinex see little value in such a meeting, insisting that Ontario must first sort out what level of government - native or provincial - holds authority over the region.
"We can't negotiate the treaty, we can't speak to first-nations rights," said Mr. Trusler. "Only the government can deal with that and they have been sidestepping the issue for long time. Meanwhile, this is our flagship investment. We have people going without pay while this goes on. We are right down on our knees."
Mr. Trusler said he won't give up on his claims, despite Mr. Morris's presence on the lake. "We will continue to embarrass this government unless we get access or some kind of value out of this property," he said. "At this stage, if we gave this claim up, we'd go bankrupt."
[Non-text portions of this message have been removed]