We need to stop the rush to open Canada’s dirty mines | John Cassidy

Northern Ontario’s mining industry would be diminished if and when old and water-polluting mines are finally shut down. In the meantime, it would be difficult to justify vast amounts of public money being spent developing new greenfield mineral deposits. All too often, mine development and mining jobs depend on colliding regulatory priorities.

So it is not surprising that mining interests have colluded for years with other industries to assert control over the Environmental Review Agency, an independent state agency that oversees the approval of natural resource projects that have an impact on the environment or biodiversity.

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The turf war exemplified by the Grassy Narrows First Nation’s recent failed bid to stop the Northern Orion Corporation’s proposed mineral mine (pdf) began more than 30 years ago. In the 1980s, Grassy Narrows struck a deal with Detroit-based Grassy Narrows Uranium Corp. to extract mineral resources in their territory, which stretches over 58 sq km. The agreement had broad but ambiguous language that allowed for commercial uranium mining with minimal regard for the health and well-being of First Nations who lived in the region.

But the decade-long legal fight against Grassy Narrows started after a mine in the neighbouring city of Fond du Lac was shut down in 1982 for safety violations. The case was seen by First Nations as a test of how much power their government should have over the process of approving mining projects in the state.

And so Grassy Narrows created the Grassy Narrows Project Review Agency in 1980. That agency assessed the historical impact of mining and the effects of mineral extraction on wildlife and the environment. It required that, before opening a mine, companies consider how their project would affect the environment. It established a rigorous regulatory process that many agree is the best one in the country.

Grassy Narrows first learned that the Environment Review Agency might be replaced in 1996 when a provincial executive council meeting minutes showed that First Nations negotiators were told that Ontario wanted to establish a new agency that would be more friendly to the resources industry.

That replacement agency turned out to be the Northern Orion Corporation. In 2009, Northern Orion announced plans to develop a mine near Grassy Narrows, located in the Dryden area of the north-west region of Ontario. It is still in the planning stage.

Northern Orion has not committed any public funds to mine activities in Northern Ontario. But it has spent millions trying to secure water rights to its proposed mine, including a motion to have them devolved from local municipalities and into the province. Northern Orion has been able to do this because of a disproportionate amount of resources allocated by the Ontario government to the support of the mining industry, including about 40% of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s budget in 2004.

Mining secrecy pervades a Canadian Conservative party where its highest-ranking officials have consistently been opposed to funding First Nations that are responsible for most of Canada’s natural resources

Northern Orion is currently pursuing an exemption in the Ontario environmental review process. If granted, that would mean the NEA would be obliged to examine Northern Orion’s proposal before another agency, the Ministry of the Environment, has the final say.

Grassy Narrows and other Northern Ontario First Nations, are fighting that exemption. Their legal challenge is supported by a wealth of scientific evidence about the dangers that greenhouse gas emissions from Northern Orion’s proposed mine will pose to the ecological health of the region.

Their case will be heard by the Ontario Environmental Review Tribunal in the fall. In the meantime, Canada’s Conservative government is muzzling scientists and threatening to withdraw federal funding from its National Energy Board and other agencies that are likely to play an important role in examining Northern Orion’s project.

But the issue is much larger than one mining project. Muzzling scientists and ideological opposition to providing First Nations with the recognition and powers to balance economic interests with environmental protection poses serious threats to Canada’s social and economic vitality.

• This is an edited version of a panel discussion as part of Ontario’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission

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