CBC

Noront Resources, Neskantaga First Nation disagree even on whether they’re talking to each other

By Jody Porter

Neskantaga is one of three First Nations closest to the Noront Resources claims as shown on this map from the company's website.

Neskantaga is one of three First Nations closest to the Noront Resources claims as shown on this map from the company’s website. (norontresources.com)

Ten years after a large chromite deposit in Ontario’s James Bay lowlands was first discovered and declared a “game-changer” for the Canadian economy, the Ring of Fire mining development is flaming out in a dispute over who is talking to whom.

Noront Resources is now the main proponent in the project after Cliffs Natural Resources pulled out of the development in 2013, but its relationship with one of the First Nations in the area continues to deteriorate.

“Beginning this month Noront will enter into a series of meetings with Neskantaga First Nation,” the company said in a news release dated January 17, 2017. “These meetings will be facilitated by an experienced and respected mediator with the goal of identifying a mutually agreeable path forward for the company’s current and proposed exploration and development activities.”

But that’s not true, according to the First Nation, which is seeking a retraction, an apology and an explanation for how the mistake was made before it will even consider talks with the company.

Esker Camp prospector tents

Noront Resources Esker Camp in Ontario’s James Bay lowlands. (Jeff Walters/CBC)

Noront president Alan Coutts reiterated the claim that talks were scheduled in an interview with CBC News on January 25.

“We’re starting talks, probably the beginning of February with Neskantaga,” he said.

Still not true, according to senior staff working on the file for Neskantaga First Nation.

“At this time there is no mediation between Noront and Neskantaga,” Chris Moonias told CBC News on Jan. 26.

Ontario’s Minister of Northern Development and Mines, that funds the negotiations with First Nations on the Ring of Fire could not say for certain if the parties were talking.

“But the fact is there are discussions going on, or, I mean, are about to go on, between Neskantaga and Noront Resources,” Michael Gravelle said.

‘Cease and desist’

Last summer, Neskantaga sent Noront a letter telling the company to “cease and desist”  its drilling program on the community’s traditional lands. The First Nation said Noront failed to follow the community’s development protocol. The matter has never been resolved.

Relationships with First Nations are key to progress in the Ring of Fire, Gravelle said.

“I think if there’s one thing that Noront and I agree 100 per cent is that in order for this project to move forward we have to do it in partnership with First Nations,” he said.

But it’s not clear if Gravelle and Coutts vision of those partnerships is identical.

“We’re saying, ‘let’s try to get this resource development issue separated from these larger broader issues” such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and reconciliation, Coutts said.

No route picked for road

Beyond the troubled relationships, infrastructure remains a huge hurdle in the Ring of Fire. Hundreds of kilometres of roads must be built over the muskeg to the proposed mine site. Without it there is no cost-effective way to get the minerals to market.

Little work has been done to prepare for a road. There is no route selected, no agreements in place for who would fund it; who would own or maintain it; not even a decision on whether the road would be built to accommodate both industrial vehicles from the mine and cars and trucks from nearby First Nations.

All of that work is likely to take more time than is left in the provincial government’s mandate, but Gravelle is undaunted.

“We’ve made our one billion dollar funding commitment to transportation infrastructure and we’re keen to see the federal government join us in that funding agreement,” Gravelle said.