Sudbury·Audio

Mushkegowuk Grand Chief raises concerns about new law that changes environmental assessment process

As exploration activity starts up again in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, a First Nations group is raising concerns about recent legislative changes to environmental assessment they say erode their rights.

Bill 197, the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, makes changes to the environmental assessment process

A mining camp in the Ring of Fire in northern Ontario. (Noront Resources)

As exploration activity starts up again in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire in northern Ontario, a First Nations group is raising concerns about recent legislative changes to environmental assessment they say erode their rights.

After being shut down due to COVID-19, Noront Resources is ramping up its search for new gold and nickel deposits.

During the pandemic, the provincial government pushed through Bill 197, called the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act. It included 20 pieces of legislation, including changes to the province's building code act and the environmental assessment act. 

Al Coutts, president and CEO of Noront Resources, says the change also means the company is making changes to its Eagle's Nest Deposit plans in the Ring of Fire. He says initially, the terms of reference not only included the development of the mine, but also plans to build an all-season access road.

"We're now modifying that," he said. Coutts says the new legislation means that First Nations will be taking over the environmental assessment of the road through their territory, instead of the company.

"We like this model. We think it's very innovative. We think it's the right way to do this kind of permitting and it gets the right people leading the activity."

Coutts says he feels the set-up will help mining companies and First Nations communicate and plan better, as both will have a defined role.

"I think the communities themselves are involved at a very, sort of, substantial rate in the developments and we intend to keep it that way," he said.

'Judicial review'

But not everyone is pleased with the legislation. The Grand Chief of the Mushkegowuk Council, which represents First Nations partners in the project, says there are concerns. 

Jonathan Solomon says he feels the legislation takes away a duty to consult with First Nations.

"They went around that using COVID-19 as an excuse but that's not acceptable, especially when you're talking about the environment," he said.

"We call this a bulldozer legislation. [Premier Doug Ford is] using legislation to come into the Ring of Fire. In a way, that's what's happening."

Solomon says the omnibus bill not only deals with development, but other resource development in the north.

"They think they have the legal right to start encroaching on our territory without any consideration to accommodate, consult — and the biggest part is consent," he said.

He says he's looking to see if legal action can be taken against the province.

"We have options here, even a judicial review of how this piece of legislation became law. I don't think it would stand in court."

Last month, the chief of Fort Albany First Nation called on the province to repeal the bill.

Chief Leo Metatawabin said he wanted to see more consultation, engagement and meaningful dialogue.

He also said the province didn't translate the documents into traditional languages, and some of the elders weren't able to read them.

Exploration is getting underway at the Ring of Fire after a lull due to the pandemic...and responsibilities for some environmental assessments have shifted. We find out more from Noront president and CEO Alan Coutts and Mushkegowuk Council Grand Chief Jonathan Solomon. 7:47

With files from Kate Rutherford

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