Tlicho 'extremely disappointed' with N.W.T. government court action on NICO mining project

The Tlicho government said it was blindsided by the territorial government's decision to go to the courts to deal with negotiations between Fortune Minerals Limited and the Tlicho government.

Grand chief says Tlicho not informed of government’s move to ask courts to settle negotiation over land access

Grand Chief George Mackenzie said he was 'extremely disappointed' by the territorial government's decision to bring the issue to court. (George Mackenzie/Facebook)

The Tlicho government said it was blindsided by the territorial government's decision to turn to the courts to end a negotiation between the Tlicho and a company that wants to build the N.W.T.'s next mine on Tlicho land.

"The Tlicho government is extremely disappointed that our [treaty] partner — the [N.W.T. government] — chose to take the unilateral step of bringing this treaty issue to court without first addressing it with the Tlicho [government]," said Grand Chief George Mackenzie in a news release issued Thursday.

On June 6, the territorial government filed court papers asking a judge to settle a negotiation between Fortune Minerals Limited and the Tlicho. The negotiation is over an access agreement Fortune Minerals needs to reach with the Tlicho to build a 49-km road to its NICO project near Whati. The road would pass over Tlicho lands.

In the filing, the territorial government said: "In recent years, despite efforts to conclude an agreement, there has been little progress made." It took the step after Fortune wrote to Lands Minister Louis Sebert requesting help resolving the impasse.

The Tlicho government said it's still negotiating the access agreement with Fortune. It met with the company three weeks ago and has another meeting scheduled for June 22.

"Despite these meetings ... the [territorial government] chose not to speak to the Tlicho [government] before intervening on behalf of a junior mining company in court," said the Tlicho in the news release.

The prospects for turning the NICO deposit into a producing mine have increased alongside the price of cobalt. (Submitted by Troy Nazarewicz)

A Tlicho government official said the grand chief is not doing any interviews on the issue because the matter is now in court. The CBC requested an interview with an N.W.T. cabinet minister on the issue but none were available.

Future is bright for project

Fortune is hoping to start building the mine next year, but it has not reached key agreements with the Tlicho, whose land it's hoping to mine.

The prospects for turning the NICO cobalt, gold, copper and bismuth deposit into a producing mine have increased dramatically over the last two years as the price of cobalt has skyrocketed.

Since the project received its environmental approvals five years ago, the company has been focused on raising the $600 million needed to construct the mine and a refinery in Saskatchewan.

In a news release also issued Thursday, Fortune Minerals said it "was recently approached by several global mining and refining companies interested in purchasing metal concentrates directly from the mine. If this is pursued, it would enable the company to defer the Saskatchewan refinery, reducing up-front capital by about 50 [per cent]."

Fortune Minerals President Robin Goad previously downplayed the move to ask a judge to settle the access negotiation, saying Fortune Minerals is still hoping to reach an agreement but wanted to have a way of resolving an impasse if that occurs.

No impact benefit agreement, no access agreement

Goad pointed out that Fortune Minerals has a right of access to NICO because the mineral claims that underpin it were staked before the Tlicho Agreement was signed.

But the company must sign an access agreement with the Tlicho to exercise that right. It must also negotiate an impact benefits agreement, something Grand Chief Mackenzie points out has not been done.

Robin Goad is the president of Fortune Minerals, which is in negotiation with the Tlicho government. (Submitted by Troy Nazarewicz)

"Fortune's proposed development ... will have major impacts on Tlicho citizens," Mackenzie said in the news release. "Tlicho negotiators have worked with Fortune in good faith to address those impacts through both an access agreement and an [impact benefit agreement], but it seems that Fortune is now trying to use dispute resolution to avoid negotiating with us."

The Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board did an environmental assessment on the NICO project. In its final report it wrote: "The need for an [impact benefits agreement] is particularly important for the [NICO] Project because the mine is surrounded by Tlicho titled land and the [NICO] Project Access Road is on Tlicho titled land."

There is a mechanism in the Tlicho Agreement for resolving disputes over access, but the two positions required to use it have been vacant for the last three years.

In its court filing, the territorial government said filling the positions involves a long process of government approvals that likely can't be done in time "to address Fortune Minerals Limited's request for access to the dispute mechanism process."

As a result, the government is asking a judge to take on the job of resolving the impasse.