Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
For the second time in as many years, the Innu government for Uashat mak Mani-utenam (ITUM) has stopped mineral exploration in its traditional territory by issuing an eviction notice to a developer.
On Aug. 24, a week after Murchison Minerals announced the commencement of its 2023 summer exploration program at its HPM Nickel-Copper-Cobalt Project in Quebec, ITUM Vice-Chief Kenny Régis personally delivered an eviction notice to the company.
Régis was accompanied by family members who occupy the lands being disturbed by the Canadian-based Murchison Minerals.
"We have explained many times to Murchison that our members and families actively make use of these lands, and that exploration work is incompatible with the practice of their traditional activities and with the passing on of our culture to their children and grandchildren," said ITUM Chief Mike "Pelash" Mckenzie, in a statement.
On Aug. 31, Murchison agreed to suspend work.
In the summer of 2022, Murchison collected data before the first eviction order was issued and the company stopped its work. That data was analyzed in the winter of 2023 and identified 34 high-priority targets for follow-up testing.
"We couldn't be more eager to get back to the HPM project,” Murchison Minerals' Vice-President of Exploration John Shmyr wrote in an Aug. 16 statement.
“After last summer's success the project is shaping up to be one of the premier nickel exploration projects in North America. The sheer number of high priority targets we have identified, paired with the lack of historic exploration, clearly demonstrated the huge potential of the HPM Project," Shmyr continued.
It was those words that pushed ITUM to issue a second eviction order.
Legal counsel Morgan Kendall of the Montreal firm Kendall Carot, which is part of the ITUM legal team, said the Innu government issued the eviction notices based on the First Nation’s claim of Aboriginal title on the land.
“It’s their position, therefore, they have a say over what happens and shouldn’t happen on the land based on their constitutional rights,” said Kendall.
Not only is ITUM’s position supported by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but the Innu government for Uashat mak Mani-utenam has also passed its own laws to govern its territory and, under those laws, projects require ITUM’s consent.
“Of course, in 2022, (Murchison) stopped, and then came back in 2023. We’ll see what happens next year,” said Kendall.
“ITUM is going to sit down with the company and the (Quebec) government to make its position clear and to work with the government and Murchison to make sure that there’s no more work conducted in those areas,” he said.
Quebec, like a number of other provinces and territories, employs an open entry mining system, which allows companies to stake claims online at a nominal fee and then engage in exploration without having to notify or consult the Aboriginal title holder.
Kendall says court action is already being taken on a number of fronts to challenge the open entry mining system.
The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have launched a legal challenge against Quebec and its free-entry mining system. They argue the system does not respect their constitutionally protected right to be consulted before a claim is issued.
In British Columbia, the Gitxaała and Ehattesaht First Nations have sued the province over its Mineral Tenures Act, which currently grants mineral claims via an online system and does not include initial consultation with Indigenous people.
In 2013, the Ross River Dena Council took legal action against the Yukon government saying the government had breached its duty to consult as it had registered new mining claims under the Quartz Mining Act without consultation. The Yukon Court of Appeal upheld the lower court’s finding that the registration system did not meet consultation requirements.
“The free mining system…is unlike any other kind of legal framework because it denies the possibility of being properly and meaningfully consulted and accommodated,” said Kendall.
It’s “very, very possible” that ITUM could undertake legal action against both the Quebec government and Murchison Minerals, but Kendall says ITUM would rather negotiate than litigate.
There are already a number of mining developments in ITUM territory.
However, says Kendall, “the priority in this area of their territory is to protect this area for use of families right now and also for future generations so that those traditions can be passed on to the next generation.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.