Harper Collides With Native Canadians’ Natural Resources Claims – by Jeremy van Loon (Bloomberg News – January 27, 2014)

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Back in the spring of 2012, while walking in the deep woods of northern Ontario, Sonny Gagnon stumbled across a collection of surveying equipment among the towering spruce trees. Gagnon is chief of the Aroland aboriginal tribe, a band of 450 people living in a village of ramshackle houses surrounded by swampy muskeg. He tracks everything that goes on in his community. And the surveying tools weren’t supposed to be there.

“I was ticked off,” he says, after learning that the equipment belonged to a subcontractor of Cleveland-based mining company Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. (CLF:US)

It turned out Cliffs had plans to mine for chromite to the north of the Aroland reserve and to build a road through the territory to transport truckloads of the mineral to a railhead, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its March issue.

“They weren’t consulting us on what they were doing on the land,” Gagnon says. “I told them to leave and that we didn’t want them back.”

Gagnon and his native band then set up a roadblock to monitor traffic. Cliffs suspended plans for the mine in November, citing in a statement the “risks” associated with its ability to transport the ore for processing.

Cliffs officials didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.

Aboriginal Canadians from Quebec to British Columbia are asserting their rights. Energized by a 2004 Supreme Court decision that requires governments to “consult and accommodate” aboriginal groups before miners and oil and gas drillers encroach on their lands, the natives have blocked half a dozen major projects since the court ruling.

Harper’s Dilemma

That includes a proposed C$6.5 billion ($6 billion) oil pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific Ocean and a shale gas project in the eastern province of New Brunswick.

The natives’ activism complicates Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s grand plan to boost the Canadian economy with C$650 billion worth of natural resource projects over the next decade in a quest to make the nation an “energy superpower.” Among the government’s priorities are mining projects in the so-called Ring of Fire region of northern Ontario, stepped-up oil extraction from Alberta’s tar sands and natural gas exploration in British Columbia.

Native Canadians are demanding a say in how these projects proceed, and the 2004 court decision forces the government to give them one.

’Huge Issues’

“These are huge issues, which have enormous implications for the economy of the country,” says Bob Rae, a former Ontario premier who, until April 2013, led Canada’s federal Liberal Party. “They’re right at the center of Canada’s economic life.”

The natives have a powerful political ally in Rae, who has agreed to negotiate with mining companies and the provincial and federal governments on behalf of the nine chiefs of the Matawa First Nations, including Gagnon. The council holds sway over northern Ontario lands where major mineral discoveries were made as recently as 2008. Mining companies, including Cliffs and Toronto-based Noront Resources Ltd. (NOT), estimate the region contains C$50 billion worth of copper, zinc and chromite.

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