Environmental story of the year – by Shawn Bell (Wawatay News – January 3, 2013)

Northern Ontario’s First Nations Voice: http://wawataynews.ca/

The Ontario Geologic Survey (OGS) claimed its aerial surveying of one of Ontario’s last pristine wildernesses was done with the best of intentions. The OGS wanted to update geologic records that were decades old, it said, and help First Nations in the area create land use plans based on geologic information.

And if the aerial surveying around Weenusk First Nation along the Hudson Bay coast resulted in a big increase of mineral exploration in the area, well, no one would be surprised. The only problem was that the First Nation did not even know the aerial surveying took place.

And when it did find out just weeks before the results were to be published on the internet for prospectors everywhere to see, it turned out the people Weenusk were not that interested in having their geologic information exposed to the world.

“Once you allow these processes to begin, our schedules and our land use plans don’t mean a thing,” said George Hunter, a community member and former chief of Weenusk. “We don’t want to allow the province to issue licenses for staking to take place, and the only advantage we have now is that nobody has access to the land.”

Wawatay’s environmental story of the year is in part a david vs goliath tale of a small community doing what it can to oppose mining exploration on its land. But it is also more complex than that. Even amongst the community members there is divisions over whether mineral exploration in the area would be good for the First Nation.

Add in the fact that similar geologic aerial surveying took place over Eabametoong and Mattagami last year, and that more surveying is planning for the Fort Severn area along the James Bay coast, and the lessons from Weenusk become regional in scope.

The Weenusk example is concerning, considering that the First Nation only found out that the work had been done during an unrelated discussion with DeBeers merely weeks before the scheduled June 6 release date.

OGS’ senior manager told Wawatay that it is common practice for the organization to contact First Nations before doing the surveying. For an unexplained reason, that did not happen with Weenusk.

But the bigger question is how much control First Nations have over the information that gets collected.

In Weenusk’s case, the release date of the information was postponed after the First Nation expressed concerns. An August 8 date was also pushed back, and now the release has been delayed indefinitely.

It is generally common practice for the OGS to put the information it collects online. Parker acknowledged that generally when an aerial survey gets put online, the province sees an increase in mining claims staked in the area.

That is what Hunter and others in the community fear – once the information gets made public, a process of staking claims will begin that will end up with the First Nation struggling to keep its land in the pristine state it is today.

“To us, freedom doesn’t have staked claims,” Hunter said. “The moment you have staked claims and private property, our true freedom is compromised forever.”

But Weenusk Chief Edmund Hunter said the situation is not so black and white. Many members of the community want the jobs and economic benefits that come from mining exploration. He wants to see a referendum where the community can decide, one way or the other.

Whatever the community ends up deciding, the demand for the minerals of the far north will continue to grow. The struggle to keep the land free from mining claims and private property is one that Weenusk may have to deal with for decades to come.

The environmental story of the year is not a simple story. It is many layered, with many stakeholders. But in the end it is a story that affects all the people of the north, in different ways. And considering the uniqueness of the pristine area in question, it is a story that should resonate around the world.