Sudbury

Attawapiskat First Nation seeks court injunction against Ring of Fire exploration

A court hearing this week sparked by Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario could have big implications for the development of the Ring of Fire.

Ontario First Nation claims only consultation from the mining company was a single email in January 2020

Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario says it wasn't properly consulted about mineral exploration in its traditional territory in the Ring of Fire. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

A court hearing this week sparked by Attawapiskat First Nation in northern Ontario could have big implications for the development of the Ring of Fire.

The First Nation says it wasn't properly consulted about exploration by mining company Juno in its traditional territory and is seeking an injunction.

"The conflicting forces at work loom large over the fate of climate change, the environment, the economy, Attawapiskat, its rights and its culture," the First Nation's lawyer, Kate Kempton, told the court.

She said "there was not a single meeting" between Juno and the First Nation and the only "so-called consultation" was an email from Juno to Attawapiskat's land and resources co-ordinator in January 2020.

She said Attawapiskat reached out in April with a template of an exploration agreement and Juno didn't reply.

Kempton now claims the mining company is using that proposal to "malign" the First Nation, accusing it of being "two-faced" and only interested in getting veto power over the Ring of Fire, which Attawapiskat denies. 

"[Juno has] taken a positive offer ... flipped it on it's head and turned it against Attawapiskat," Kempton told the court. 

The lawyers for Attawapiskat say most of the 16,000 mining claims in the Ring of Fire fall within traditional territory. (Erik White/CBC)

The Ontario government then proceeded to issue exploration permits to the company in September 2020. 

The First Nation says it asked the province for funding to study the possible impacts and was refused.

Kempton argued that most mineral exploration doesn't actually lead to a mine, but still disturbs the natural environment, so First Nations need to ensure there are agreements and protections early on in the process. 

She said this drilling is in "the infamous Ring of Fire," which "if mined it means the lowlands cannot stay in tact" and could contribute to the warming of the planet. 

The proposed exploration sites are hundreds of kilometres from the community's reserve near James Bay, but are in Attawapiskat's traditional territory.

Marc Huneault, the lawyer for Juno, says there is still no evidence that this area was used historically or is used today by any members of Attawapiskat.

"Juno's questioning: 'Have you ever been there?'" he told the court.

Huneault says there are several overlapping traditional territories in the James Bay lowlands and there "seems to be a migration westward toward the Ring of Fire."

The Ontario government argues there will be little impact on Attawapiskat from the type of early exploration it is permitting Juno to do. (CBC)

Justice David Corbett said the company's "frustration" seems to be that Attawapiskat expects Juno to enter into an "elaborate and costly" exploration agreement while providing "very little concrete" evidence about the potential impacts. 

He also said it was "rude" of Juno not to reply to Attawapiskat's proposed agreement, but "that isn't a legal wrong."

Kisha Chatterjee, a lawyer for the Ontario government, disputed Attawapiskat's claim that officials had "tunnel vision" when fulfilling their duty to consult with the First Nation.

She said the government stands by its initial assessment that this activity will have very little impact on the people of Attawapiskat.

The area in question is much closer to Webequie First Nation, which has reached a memorandum of understanding with Juno. 

There are some 16,000 mining claims in the Ring of Fire, many of them in Attawapiskat territory. Juno is the largest single holder of those claims.

As a result, the decision in this case could be key in how the James Bay lowlands are developed.

"It's not just thinking about this project; it's about all the projects that are to come," said Chris Evans, another lawyer representing Attawapiskat. 

The three judges on the panel considering the case say they don't know when they'll issue a decision. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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