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New Ring of Fire exploration permit threatens sensitive ecosystems, Treaty rights

With thanks to our guest co-author Charles Hookimaw*

One of the largest exploration permits to date has been issued in the Ring of Fire, opening up lands within Attawapiskat First Nation’s Traditional Territory to mineral exploration activities. The permit was issued to Juno Corp – the largest mineral claim holder in the province – and include lands where three families from the community have traplines.

The “Ring of Fire” is the name given to a sizable mineral deposit located in Treaty 9 in the far north of Ontario. Crown Governments are pushing to develop the area, promising roads and jobs in exchange for the destruction of Indigenous lands and an ancient muskeg, which is one of largest in the world. With a proposed lifespan of over 100 years, the mining development will have direct impacts on the health and ability of future generations to exercise their treaty rights, including rights to hunt, fish and trap.

The province’s decision to issue the mineral exploration permit also comes at a time when others are reporting that mining claims in the Ring of Fire have jumped by 30% since 2022 and the “scale and pace of activities are overwhelming sensitive ecosystems & communities.”

In a letter sent to the Minister of Mines, Charles Hookimaw, a member of Kattawapiskak (Attawapiskat First Nation), expressed concerns about the need to properly assess the environmetal and cumulative impacts of mineral exploration activities prior to decisions being made. He also stressed that mineral exploration permits were being issued as “instruments to gain free access to Attawapiskat’s Traditional Territory.

Despite a recent finding by the Divisional Court that “Ontario fell short of fulfilling its duty to consult and accommodate” in a similar issuance of an exploration permit to Juno Corp because Ontario “granted the permits before adequately addressing Attawapiskat’s concerns,” Indigenous rights-holders like Hookimaw continue to call for “due process to have meaningful discussions with Attawapiskat people.”

Concerned about the significant environmental adverse impacts on Attawapiskat’s Traditional Territory, Hoookimaw points to a moratorium issued on April 1, 2021, to Canada and Ontario by three First Nations, Attawapiskat, Fort Albany and Neskantaga First Nations. Similar calls for an immediate moratorium on all mineral exploration have also been brought by the Indigenous grassroots. Neither moratorium has yet to be honoured and respected by Crown governments.

The lands and waters that stand to be directly affected by the mineral exploration boom are lands that are dominantly peatlands, or muskeg. Muskeg acts like a sponge and there is limited visual delineation between water bodies. The muskeg is a place where ‘fish travel under the land’ – making use of tunnels that are carved into the peatlands. Rising out above the peatlands, are eskers: outcroppings of rock where lichen is abundant and that serve as calving grounds for boreal caribou, a listed at risk species.

Respecting the call for a moratorium on mineral development in the Ring of Fire means protecting the health of the thousands of streams in this region that flow into the Hudson and James bays, and the region’s major rivers – from the Albany to the Winisk and Ekwan rivers. It also means safeguarding the ancient peatlands of this region that have served as carbon sinks, cooling the whole earth for millennia, and the rights and interests of Indigenous community members who are already experiencing climate impacts to their way of life.

Charles Hookimaw is a member of Kattawapiskak (Attawapiskat First Nation) and an Indigenous Advisor on mining, environmental and First Nation matters.

The original version of this post originally appeared on Law360 Canada on December 7, 2023.

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