Neskantaga’s Voice will be Heard
On August 23, 2023, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) of Ontario sent a letter to Chief Moonias of the Neskantaga Nation. The ministry informed him of their approval of a License to Collect Fish for “Scientific Purposes”. This application came from SL Consulting (Canada) Ltd. on behalf of Ring of Fire Metals (ROFM). This license allows them to conduct aquatic ecology surveys and fish sampling in the Muketei River and its tributaries, close to the ROFM’s Eagle’s Nest Project — an undeveloped mine in Northern Ontario that would extract 11 million tons of ore out of Neskantaga’s homelands. This notification arrived from the MNRF after zero consultation with the Nation — a move in direct conflict with the government’s promise to adopt and implement the principles set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This unanimous approval by Ontario is a complete disregard for Neskantaga’s rights, long-standing stewardship, and jurisdiction of their land and waters. This license allows various methods, such as fyke nets, minnow traps, and seine nets, to capture fish for their so-called scientific surveys that will be used more-so for business purposes than anything else.
The notification claims that there will be “low potential for net environmental, habitat impacts nor impact to Indigenous and treaty rights,” and the mention of “suitable mitigation measures,” as if that is enough to replace proper consultation and consent.
Chief Moonias Challenges the Unilateral Approval
Chief Moonias and Neskantaga Nation received this notification as a blatant dismissal of their rights and role as stewards of their homelands.
The Nation responded by raising a series of pointed questions and by expressing deep reservations about the unilateral decision-making process by Ontario. They question how the MNRF can proceed with approvals on projects like this without engaging in any form of consultation with the Nation — in disregard of their right to voice concerns about potential impacts on their rights as mandated by section 35 of the Constitution no less. The Chief also emphasized that such determination of impacts and mitigation assessments cannot solely be within the Crown’s purview.
Additionally, he questioned why ROFM did not seek direct permission or approval from the Neskantaga Nation for their proposed activities and what is their rationale for involvement in aquatic ecology baseline surveys when the Nation has not yet received notice that an environmental assessment for the Eagle’s Nest mine is re-commenced.
Neskantaga Nation’s commitment to safeguarding the Attawapiskat river watershed is central to the sustainability of the area. In his response, Chief Moonias reminded Ontario of the sacred and endangered sturgeon of the region they are trying to revitalize with elders and youth, and the importance of walleye as a vital food source for the community. They emphasized the interconnectedness of all elements within the ecosystem.
Ontario continues, time and time again, to fail to recognize and respect Indigenous leadership and stewardship over the lands and waters within Neskantaga’s territory. The Ontario government has already issued over 26,000 mineral tenures to 15 companies and individuals, covering nearly 5,000 square kilometres of Indigenous land that are needing protection to avoid climate catastrophe. Chief Moonias is asserting that Neskantaga has inherent jurisdiction to their sacred homeland and that the Nation needs to be meaningfully included in resource management decisions.
Bypassing Consultation: A Recurring Pattern
Does this pattern of Ontario not getting Neskantaga’s consent over resource management in the Ring of Fire sound familiar? Neskantaga, exhausted from overlapping crises and fed up with being excluded from consultation in their own territories, took this concern to the last place they could turn to — the courts.
Neskantaga went to Ontario Superior Court in July to get guidance on how the Province should go about gathering consultation for resource projects that affect Indigenous rights. At present, Ontario lumps Indigenous Nations into the same consultation process with the public, dishounoring the need for specific consultation measures guarded by s.35 of the Constitution. A favourable decision could force the Ontario government to amend the Province’s Environmental Assessment Act to better define consultation with Indigenous Nations over resource extraction projects.
All governments know that there needs to be both integrity and sound process when consulting with Indigenous Peoples on project proposals. Ontario knows they need to fulfill the “Honour of the Crown” and the “Duty to Consult and Accommodate,” which have been already argued and decided in favour of Indigenous Nations for decades now. So why does Ontario keep trying to get away with excluding Neskantaga from the consultation process?
These are the questions we continue to ask ourselves. All we know is that we’re tired of seeing Ontario put the interests of mining companies and the almighty dollar over Indigenous Nations and the lands they have stewarded since time immemorial. It has to stop.
The notification from the MNRF is an emerging story and we’ll do our best to keep you up to date as we learn more.