Aboriginal groups on the East Coast want a moratorium on any oil and gas exploration in the Gulf of St. Lawrence until a comprehensive environmental assessment is done. 

The groups believe a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling gives them the right to make that demand.

Innu, Maliseet and Mi'kmaq leaders say too little is known about the possible effects of oil and gas projects on what they say is the Gulf's fragile ecosystem.

“It is not a necessity that has to be done tomorrow, let’s be cautious,” said Chief Claude Jeannotte, a Mi'kmaq chief from Gaspé, Que.

So far, there's only one area of interest in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a site known as Old Harry. The area is located midway between Quebec's Magdalen Islands and Cape Anguille in western Newfoundland. 

Old Harry has been estimated to hold up to two billion barrels of recoverable oil — twice the size of Hibernia, east of St. John's.

A recent Supreme Court ruling gave aboriginal groups greater control over ancestral lands, and requires governments to consult and accommodate First Nations needs before deciding how those lands are used. 

Oil spill could destroy fishing grounds, say groups

The native groups believe that ruling applies to natural resource exploration in the waters off the coast. 

Ghislain Picard, regional vice-chief of the Assembly of First Nations for Quebec and Labrador, said “I think any First Nation in the country will agree, it goes as far as how Canada was before the newcomers came. For me, it is really the definition that is proper for any First Nation in this country.”

The groups say an oil spill could destroy their way of life.

“If you look just at the Mi'kmaq in the commercial fishing, it represents $72 million to our communities, hundreds of jobs,” said Jeannotte.

As the chiefs spoke in Halifax Wednesday, boats belonging to the Mi’kmaq of the Gaspé region were set to arrive at the proposed drill site at Old Harry and leave a buoy to mark their presence.

The region has also been the source of discord between Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador because it straddles a disputed boundary between the two provinces.

No one from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers was available for comment, but Corridor Resources — the company which has a licence on the area — has said, in the past, it believes it can drill without causing adverse environmental consequences. 

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board is currently conducting an environmental assessment of an exploration well proposed at Old Harry. The report is expected before the end of the year.