Northern Ontario First Nations want pause to mining permits until COVID-19 subsides
Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias says his First Nation is overstretched dealing with pandemic
Northern Ontario First Nations want the province to put a hold on mining exploration permits and pause the operation of a system that allows for the remote staking of mining claims while they deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Neskantaga Chief Chris Moonias said all the band resources of his community of 300 people, which sits about 400 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, are stretched thin on COVID-19 prevention and preparation work.
"Right now we are in the middle of a pandemic and pretty much my staff is all hands on deck dealing with this," said Moonias.
"We don't have the tools, the resources to look at permits. We are not like the government that has many different departments."
The Ontario government has designated the mining sector as an essential service, meaning it isn't under the same lockdown requirements as other parts of the economy under the provincial emergency order triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Moonias said this has created additional pressures on his First Nation, which he said can't deal with permitting related emails or alerts triggered by the province's Mining Lands Administration System, which allows for remote staking of claims.
Moonias said the band staff member who regularly deals with these types of communications is leading one of the community's pandemic teams.
"How can I continue to monitor everything while this is happening? This is the way it is up north; you are prioritizing," said Moonias.
Moonias said he worries permit authorizations could be pushed through without meeting the proper consultation requirements while First Nations aren't looking.
'Overstretched and exhausted'
Moonies wrote Lori Churchill, director of the Indigenous consultation and partnership branch with the Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines, on April 22 asking for the permitting processes be put on hold and the suspension of the mining lands administration system until COVID-19 emergency measures subside.
"We are writing to express our disappointment and dismay that remote Indigenous communities like ours that are currently dealing with acute social emergencies exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic are still being asked to respond to mining exploration plans and permits, so as to expedite those approvals," wrote Moonias.
"People in our communities are overstretched and exhausted. It should be obvious that we would be currently unable to engage meaningfully with proponents and government bodies due to capacity issues and health and safety concerns stemming from the pandemic."
Moonias sent a copy of the letter to Nishnawbe Aski Grand Chief Alvin Fiddler. Fiddler said the ministry should accept Moonias' request.
"It's a reasonable request considering the fact we are in the middle of a pandemic. The priority for many of our chiefs is to ensure the safety and well-being of their citizens," said Fiddler.
"Our communities...should not have to worry about mining permits or exploration on their territories."
Moonias said he has not received a response yet from the ministry.
The Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines said in an emailed statement that it values "the ongoing work of the exploration sector," but that it "also remains committed to meeting our obligations with respect to Aboriginal consultation."
The statement said that while it won't suspend its mining lands administration system, it understands that COVID-19 has disrupted normal consultation processes and is willing to place some permit applications on hold.
"[The ministry] continues to work with First Nation communities to understand their needs and concerns during these challenging times, and we will use the tools available to us to balance all interests, in a respectful way," said the statement.