Thunder Bay

Mining consultations continue even as water stops flowing for Neskantaga First Nation

Consultation on the environmental assessment for a road to mineral deposit in northern Ontario will proceed even as one of the First Nations affected has been emptied out by an emergency.

Mining developments were supposed to bring an end to water crisis in Neskantaga, they have not

Handmade signs greeted visitors to Neskantaga on Monday, a week after a problem with the water supply resulted in the evacuation of the remote community. (Sol Mamakwa/Twitter)

Consultation on the environmental assessment for a road to mineral deposit in northern Ontario will proceed even as one of the First Nations affected has been emptied out by an emergency.

Neskantaga First Nation was evacuated last week after the community water supply was shut down when an oily substance was discovered in the reservoir. Nearly all of its 300 residents are staying in hotels, about 450 kilometres away, in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Meanwhile, consultations on the terms of reference that will set the stage for environmental assessment on a mining supply road through Neskantaga's traditional territory continue. Ontario has a constitutional duty to consult First Nations when their treaty rights may be impacted.

"As the environmental assessment process moves forward, the ministry will remain flexible in our approach to consultation," a spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks said in an email to CBC News.

Neskantaga First Nation, formerly known as Lansdowne House, is located about 450 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont. (CBC)

The end date for comments for this phase of the environmental assessment on the road has already been pushed back twice and is now set for Nov. 30. Before the current water crisis, Neskantaga had asked for the consultations to be put off because the pandemic makes it impossible to safely gather knowledge holders to provide input.

"Neskantaga's land use options will be permanently altered by the project as the Webequie Supply Road will bisect Neskantaga's lands and change forever the options for ensuring the continued practice of Neskantaga's way of life on Neskantaga territory," said in a letter to the environment ministry, dated Oct. 13.

Both Ontario and Canada touted an end to boil water advisories in First Nations as an opportunity that would come with mining development.

Neskantaga has been without safe tap water since February 1995.

A "Trilateral Drinking Water Table" is part of an Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada [now Indigenous Services Canada] document, titled,  Ring of Fire: A Strategic Overview and dated May 31, 2016. In it, Ontario pledged to provide technical and engineering support to Neskantaga.

Ontario's Ministry of Indigenous Affairs said that support was provided during the construction phase of Neskantaga's new water plant and now it is up to the federal government to deal with its failings.

"Ontario remains committed to working in partnership with First Nations communities to resolve the issue of water quality on reserves, and we are calling on the federal government to fulfill their responsibility of ensuring safe water on reserves," a spokesperson said in an email to CBC News.

First Nations leaders say what is needed now is a plan to get water flowing again to homes in Neskantaga. Without it, residents will remain stranded in Thunder Bay, indefinitely.

Indigenous Services Canada says it is providing 16.4 million so far on the water treatment plant. A spokesperson said $7.6 million of that is to cover the cost of changing contractors. The initial contractor was ordered out of the community last year after a dispute with the First Nation when it became clear the planned opening date of the new plant would not be met.

Marc Miller, the Minister of Indigenous Services did not commit to a timeline when asked about Neskantaga by reporters in Ottawa on Monday.

"It is complex but we're committed to repairing it and I hope we're close," he said.

Miller said he is willing to intervene if Neskantaga is feeling pressured over consultations on resource extraction, but wouldn't air the problems publicly. 

"When communities reach out to us and ask us to reach out to our provincial counterparts, we do," he said in an interview with CBC News. "It's not something we do in the public domain out of respect for all the parties involved."

The Webequie supply road is a 107-kilometre road that would connect the airport near Webequie First Nation with a mineral deposit and mining activity in the Ring of Fire.

The nickel and chromite deposit was discovered more than a decade ago in an area where several First Nations assert a treaty right.