Cat Lake forced to take legal action when Ontario granted permit to build road through territory

Tuesday, March 5th, 2024 6:09pm


Image Caption

Frank Mckay, chair and CEO for Windigo First Nations Council, and Cat Lake First Nation Chief Russell Wesley.


“We must always be vigilant in…ensuring that our peoples’ rights are always observed in any planning, any development that is proposed within that territory.” — Frank Mckay, chair and CEO for Windigo First Nations Council
By Shari Narine
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Cat Lake First Nation is taking Ontario to task for forcing the nation to launch legal action after the province refused to honour an 18-month moratorium enacted by the nation September 2023 to undertake its own environmental impact assessment on a proposed gold mine in its traditional territory.

On Feb. 9, the province issued a permit to allow First Mining Gold Corp. (FMGC) to build a temporary 18-kilometre winter road from the end of the Wenasaga Road to its Springpole Gold Project exploration site, an open-pit mine in northwestern Ontario.

“The Ontario permit approval significantly destabilized the situation,” said Cat Lake First Nation Chief Russell Wesley at a news conference at Queen’s Park Tuesday morning.

Wesley stressed that Cat Lake is not opposed to development but needs to assess the impacts. He said the Anishinaabe-led impact assessment will include a comprehensive evaluation of the impacts of the proposed mine on Indigenous rights for fishing, hunting and trapping, as well as water, wildlife and sacred sites such as pictographs and burial grounds.

He pointed out that consultation with members will take longer as “x square miles of land (is being removed) from hunting, fishing and treaty rights… for at least 100 years.”

Sol Mamakwa, Ontario NDP member of the provincial parliament, said Cat Lake’s concerns were “a marker of a bigger issue whereby the Ontario government continues to proceed with any work that’s happening within our homelands without the free, prior and informed consent” of First Nations.

Mamakwa joined Wesley and Frank Mckay, chair and CEO for Windigo First Nations Council. The council represents seven remote First Nations, including Cat Lake.

On Feb. 23, two days after filing documents with the Superior Court of Justice (Divisional Court) in Thunder Bay, Cat Lake First Nation was successful in getting an interim order to pause construction of the road. Cat Lake is seeking a judicial review of the decision by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to give the go-ahead on the permit.

In a statement issued Feb. 26, Dan Wilton, CEO and director of FMGC, expressed disappointment in Cat Lake’s decision to oppose the construction of the road, which would allow the company to “focus on operating in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

According to FMGC, the exploration camp has been in operation since 2015 and dependent on an ice road for supplies. The temporary winter road will be operated seasonally “ensuring minimal interference to the environment and traditional land use practices.”

Wesley said that Ontario’s willingness to issue overland winter road permits to FMGC while Cat Lake lacks year-round road access, with members having to depend on hazardous winter roads impacted by climate change, “underscores the inequality in how safety considerations are weighed.”

Cat Lake is a remote fly-in community. It is home to 800 people and located 180 km northwest of Sioux Lookout.

Wesley also took issue with the province delegating the duty to consult to the industrial partner and called out the provincial environmental process as being “unresponsive to typical First Nations’ circumstances.”

He pointed to the minimal technical capacity of most First Nations to respond quickly to “complex applications” and took a shot at Bill 162, which proposes changes to the Environmental Assessment Act, calling it the “get it done act.”

Bill 162 allows property to be acquired through expropriation for a project prior to completion of the environmental assessment. In other words, the province would have stronger justification for the expropriation of land before an environmental assessment is complete.

Wesley said the province did not consult with Cat Lake before issuing the road-building permit.

“While disheartening, I foresee a trend where First Nations are increasingly forced into the courtroom,” he said.

Three existing mining agreements prove that Windigo nations are not opposed to development, said Mckay. However, benefits had to be forthcoming to both the mining companies and the communities, he said.

“(Companies) can't just move over our territories. We have to be consulted. We have to be properly engaged in and to ensure they know that we have environmental concerns in protecting our treaty rights…We must always be vigilant in…ensuring that our peoples’ rights are always observed in any planning, any development that is proposed within that territory,” said Mckay.

According to FMGC, the Springpole Gold Project is one of the two largest gold projects being advanced by the company in Canada.