MAC: Mines and Communities

Ottawa quietly opens protected Arctic wilderness to proposed mining

Published by MAC on 2010-12-13
Source: CBC News, Canadian Press (2010-12-07)

Canada's First Nations and environmentalists are outraged at the government's over-turning of a mining ban in a critical part of the country's northern wilderness.

This "quiet" betrayal follows in the wake of growing alarm at the link between resource exploitation, global warming and destruction of the Arctic region itself. See:

Pole-axed: Massive threats posed to the Arctic and Antarctica

N.W.T. First Nation wants Arctic mining ban back

CBC News

7 December 2010

A Northwest Territories aboriginal group is taking the federal government to court for quietly opening a vast area of once-protected northern wilderness to mining claims.

The Dehcho First Nations has asked the Federal Court to overturn Ottawa's order removing an existing ban on subsurface mining in the Horn Plateau, a 25,000-square-kilometre area in the south-central part of the territory.

In its application for a judicial review dated Nov. 29, the Dehcho said the federal government's decision to remove the subsurface mining ban breaches an agreement made through the N.W.T. Protected Areas Strategy.

The news comes as Ottawa announced proposed boundaries this week for a national marine park in Lancaster Sound, located at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage.

The Horn Plateau region is the source of the Horn, Willowlake and Rabbitskin rivers, serves as a nesting area for migratory birds, and is a habitat for caribou, wood bison and wolverine species.

The Dehcho Dene consider the area - which they call Edehzhie in the Slavey language - to be a sacred place and an important hunting ground. It is also known to have potentially significant oil and gas deposits.

The Horn Plateau area has been under interim protection since 2002. Shortly before that protection was set to expire in October, the federal Indian and Northern Affairs Department issued an order-in-council extending that protection until 2012.

But that extension retained only a ban on surface activities such as logging. Protection from subsurface activity such as mining and drilling was not included.
Area vulnerable, First Nation argues

"This leaves the Edehzhie subsurface immediately vulnerable to prospecting, staking and recording of mineral claims by third parties," the Dehcho's court application states.

Dehcho leaders said federal officials had assured them Edehzhie would be protected from development during their land-claim negotiations.

In the court application, the Dehcho First Nations said it, the federal government and the N.W.T. government had agreed to make the Horn Plateau a national wildlife area under the Protected Areas Strategy.

As part of the strategy, the area in question would have interim protection from subsurface activity while all parties negotiate the terms of permanent protection.

Ottawa's move to remove the ban on mining claims "was made without any consultation as required by law, and is regarded by the Dehcho First Nations as a complete betrayal of the letter and the spirit of the Protected Areas Strategy," according to the court application.

The Dehcho First Nations is an organization that represents nine Dene communities and two Metis communities in the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories.

It is the only aboriginal group along the proposed Mackenzie Valley pipeline route that has not signed a land claim agreement with the federal government.

With the Horn Plateau matter going to the Federal Court, it is not clear if federal negotiators will halt their land-claim talks with the Dehcho First Nations.

The federal government has not commented to date on why it removed subsurface protection from the Horn Plateau.

Ottawa quietly opens protected Arctic wilderness to proposed mining

By Bob Weber

The Canadian Press

7 December 2010

The federal government is facing a lawsuit after quietly opening a vast tract of a once-protected Arctic wilderness to mining claims.

Ottawa's move shocked northern aboriginals and environmentalists, and land-claim negotiators say the decision to no longer bar prospectors from a pristine and much-loved part of the Northwest Territories endangers the entire plan for protected areas in the Eastern Arctic.

"This is unprecedented and if it's not reversed it will lead to the end of the protected-areas strategy," said Chris Reid, legal adviser to the Dehcho First Nation, which filed a challenge to the government's decision in Federal Court last week.

The area in question is the Horn Plateau which has been a candidate for designation as a national wildlife area for more than a decade.

In 2002, Ottawa agreed to temporarily block filing of any new mineral claims on the land while talks continued. That ban had been renewed every two years - until this fall when an order in council maintained protection on surface rights but withdrew it for subsurface rights.

Prospectors are now free to enter the area and stake it for mineral claims. That creates a third-party interest that some say will at the very least make it harder to protect the area.

The plateau is thought to have significant potential for diamonds, base metals, uranium and energy.

Reid said the federal move breaks a promise made last May by former Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl to renew protection for several proposed conservation areas at a meeting with Dehcho Grand Chief Sam Gargan.

"The grand chief asked, ‘Will you extend them for five years?'

"I remember it clearly. (Strahl) looked at his advisers, shrugged and said, ‘Well, we'll take a look at that but certainly they'll be renewed for two years.'"

Reid said there was no warning or consultation about any changed status for the Horn Plateau.

Talks to protect the area began in 1992. In 2007, Ottawa agreed to disallow mineral staking in 25,000 square kilometres as discussions progressed.

A group of aboriginals, government officials, environmentalists and industry representatives eventually agreed to whittle that down to 14,000 square kilometres to allow some mineral exploration.

The plateau is a vast stretch of boreal forest, uplands and wetlands. It is home to endangered species such as woodland caribou and wolverines, provides important migratory bird habitat and contains the headwaters of three rivers.

It is also culturally significant to area aboriginals.

"Although we do not want confrontation with your government or with the mining industry, we cannot stand by and allow this integral part of our homeland and watershed to be destroyed," wrote Gargan in a Nov. 10 letter to current Indian Affairs Minister John Duncan.

Any signs of mineral exploration on the land will be opposed, he wrote.

"The (Dehcho First Nation) will monitor activity and remove any prospecting stakes found. In addition, anyone found to be in (the area) for the purposes of staking or exploring for minerals will be considered a trespasser and will be dealt with accordingly."

Reid said removing the ban on staking encourages prospecting, because explorers can now use geological information gathered during the protection process.

Rob Powell of the World Wildlife Fund said the federal move could have implications for six other areas in the N.W.T. that are in various stages of becoming protected.

"Part of the understanding is that while we are engaged in these consultations, the areas will have interim protection so that the opportunity for potential protection isn't lost along the way," he said.

Tom Hoefer of the N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines said the government move came as a surprise. He said his group is advising industry that the region's future is still in question.

"Go in there with your eyes open if you're going to go in there," he said.

Still, Hoefer pointed out that a mineral claim is a long way from a mine development.

"Communities have a lot of power these days, even over open Crown land."

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