N.W.T. government asks courts to resolve deadlock on NICO road

According to a document filed in court last week, Fortune Minerals Limited has been unable to negotiate an access agreement to build an all-weather road to its NICO project — located about 160 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife.

Company has right of access to proposed mine site, but unable to reach agreement with Tlicho government

Test mining at the NICO project. The Northwest Territories government is calling for a judge to resolve a dispute between a mining exploration company and the Tlicho government over an access road leading to the NICO project. (Fortune Minerals Limited)

The Northwest Territories government is calling for a judge to resolve a dispute between a mining exploration company and the Tlicho government over a road.

According to a document filed in court last week, Fortune Minerals Limited has been unable to negotiate an access agreement to build an all-weather road to its NICO project — located about 160 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife.

The company's 49-kilometre road would cross Tlicho lands from Whati, N.W.T., to the cobalt, gold, copper and bismuth deposit.

It would be a spur road off the government's own proposed Tlicho all-season road from Highway 3 to Whati.

In the court document, Sue Bowie, of the territorial Department of Executive and Indigenous Affairs, says the company initially made the request to the Tlicho to use the lands in 2008.

"In recent years, despite efforts to conclude an agreement, there has been little progress made," wrote Bowie.

In her sworn affidavit, Bowie says Fortune Minerals wrote to Lands Minister Louis Sebert in April about using a dispute settlement mechanism in the Tlicho Agreement to get access to the lands it needs for the road.

Though there is a dispute resolution mechanism in the Tlicho Agreement, it is not available. The agreement provides for two staff positions to resolve disputes, but the two positions have not been staffed in three years, according to Bowie's affidavit.

Filling the positions involves a long process of government approvals that has to be finalized by the federal government.

Bowie wrote that the government "does not foresee that the positions will be filled in sufficient time to address Fortune Minerals Limited's request for access to the dispute resolution process."

Company says it's still negotiating

Fortune Minerals president Robin Goad downplayed the move.

Goad said the company is still in the process of negotiating an access agreement with the Tlicho government and is only looking at the dispute settlement mechanism in case it is needed.

He said he could not comment on the government court filing because he has not read it.

He pointed out that Fortune Minerals has a legal right of access to the NICO site.

The mineral claims it's based on were staked before the Tlicho Agreement was signed 15 years ago. But to build an all-weather road, Fortune Minerals must reach an access agreement with the Tlicho government.

In a report for the quarter ending on March 31, 2018, Fortune Minerals said finalizing an access agreement for the road is one of the major milestones the project needs to achieve to become a mine. The company is holding its annual general meeting in Toronto next week.

The Tlicho government did not respond to CBC's calls about the negotiation of the access agreement.

Company 'poised' to produce by 2022

Earlier this month the N.W.T. minister of industry, tourism and investment mentioned the NICO project in a speech on the future of mining in the territory. Wally Schumann said the company "is poised to produce by 2022 with some of the world's largest cobalt and bismuth reserves."

The company has been in regular contact with Schumann, according to government meeting disclosure records.

He met with Fortune Mineral's chief operating officer Glen Koropchuk as recently as three weeks ago. The two met six times last year to discuss the project.

The NICO project received federal approvals five years ago. Fortune Minerals has been trying to raise more than $600 million required to turn it into a mine. The plan is to ship concentrates to a refinery the company plans to build in Saskatchewan. The company says it's hoping to begin building the mine next year.