Matawa wins early ruling in Ring of Fire legal fight – by Shawn Bell (Wawatay News – March 27, 2013)

A federal judge has ruled that three experts who Cliffs Resources tried to block from testifying can indeed give their opinions on Matawa First Nations’ Ring of Fire judicial review.

Cliffs and Canada had tried to block the experts – including Justina Ray of Wildlife Conservation Society of Canada and Professor Robert Gibson of the University of Waterloo’s Environmental Studies department – from testifying in the case.

The judge not only threw out the claims made by Cliffs and Canada, but also criticized the two parties for causing “unnecessary delays” in the case and set a strict timeline for the remainder of the hearing that should bring the case before the courts sometime this summer. The Matawa chiefs filed a legal challenge to the environmental assessment of the proposed Cliffs’ chromite project in November 2011.

The chiefs have repeatedly called for a Joint Review Panel of the Ring of Fire project, rather than the ongoing comprehensive study EA process. A Joint Review Panel would be a more in-depth review of the project, and include hearings in communities to get the perspectives of Elders and other community members.

Canada and Cliffs have so far ignored the Matawa chiefs’ calls for the stricter EA process, and pushed on with the comprehensive study despite the ongoing legal challenge.

“What we have now is a paper-based EA process, run completely outside of the communities affected, with no meaningful involvement of First Nations, and is non-transparent,” said Aroland Chief Sonny Gagnon. “It needs to be made accessible, by holding hearings in the First Nations and using an independent panel.”

Matawa’s legal counsel Judith Rae of Olthius Kleer Townshend noted that if Matawa wins its legal challenge, the current EA process would need to be restarted.

That is why Matawa have been encouraging the government to negotiate a resolution rather than go through a lengthy court process, so as to avoid having to redo much of the work.

“The First Nations had told them long before they started this EA process that they had serious concerns with it, but Cliffs and the government chose to go forward,” Rae said. “If the First Nations win this case, the EA process is thrown out. That’s always been the danger of going down this road.”

Chief Eli Moonias of Marten Falls noted that the communities want the strictest possible environmental assessment, to prevent the sorts of environmental contamination being seen in the waters north of Alberta’s tar sands.

“I am concerned about the Tar Sands situation happening here, where accountability is buried in money,” Moonias said. “We are talking about a project that can impact a fifth of the freshwater in Canada. The sponge bogs system of Muskege and water ways in the Ring of Fire need to be protected from this power play. Hence my distrust of the comprehensive study EA process.”

The judicial review now falls under a strict timeline, set by the judge. Cross-examinations must be completed by May 10, and all records have to be filed with the judge by July 8.

Rae said the timeline should mean that the case comes before the courts this summer.

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