Northern Services Project Brings Community Concerns to Ottawa

Amplifying Indigenous voices in the fight for environmental justice in the Far North

Written by Julie Mutis, Communications Intern

In 2018, CELA began consulting with communities, community groups and existing legal clinics in Northern Ontario as part of a Northern Services pilot project to see if there was a need for specialty environmental legal services in the region. The answer, according to Northern Services Counsel Kerrie Blaise, was “a resounding yes.”

Since then, CELA has been actively delivering public legal education workshops to communities in the North and representing clients affected by environmental injustices. Among the Indigenous-led groups CELA has engaged since establishing the Northern Services program, is the Friends of the Attawapiskat River — a grassroots, Indigenous-led group concerned with human impact on water resources along the Attawapiskat river and in the James Bay area. Friends’ member Mike Koostachin reached out to CELA with concerns that two impact assessments related to exploration and development in the Ring of Fire region were  inaccessible and inadequate. 

Two all-season road projects have been proposed for the First Nation communities of Martin Falls and Webequie. The project description for both roads state that the projects “could enable future access to potential mineral development activities in the Ring of Fire area.” 

Koostachin said that despite the interconnectedness of the areas waterways, communities downriver from the proposed project were not given adequate opportunity to learn about the proposals or provide feedback. He also expressed concern about the limited scope of the environmental assessments which only accounted for impacts from road construction, excluding the more invasive activities such as mineral exploration and mining that the roads would facilitate. 

In January, CELA and the Friends travelled to communities in the James Bay area to discuss concerns about the projects and collect comments that could be submitted during the 40 day impact assessment (formerly known as “environmental assessments”) feedback period. “The majority of community members we spoke to including leadership from the communities did not know the impact assessments were even happening,” said Blaise. 

Koostachin said that low education rates and a history of government apathy towards community concerns are barriers to participation in environmental consultations.“People don’t want to be bothered by what is coming ahead because they are tired of being lied to and they are tired by the lack of transparency,” he said. 

CELA’s submissions on behalf of the Friends addressed multiple issues including the scope of the environmental assessment and accessibility concerns with the consultation process among. Through a partnership with the Global Minerals, Local Communities project from Guelph University, the submissions will be examined as part of ongoing research about the participation of Indigenous communities worldwide in mining projects.  

Since the close of the submission deadline, the Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Minister Wilkinson, announced that a regional impact assessment would be carried out for the Ring of Fire mineral deposit in the Far North. This announcement signals an opportunity to contribute to an improved assessment process which includes downstream communities and impacts on the broader watershed. This approach will hopefully lead to a more integrated approach to the impact assessment plans for the proposed supply roads as well as future projects such as mining exploration and development activities. 

As CELA and The Friends await the next stages of the Martin Falls and Webequie supply road impact assessment plans, promoting education and awareness about environmental issues will be a key goal. This will include producing resources to help communities learn about the environmental impacts of mining and development and providing avenues for community members to share their concerns with decision makers.

Koostachin said that while education is an important part of increasing participation in environmental justice, intergenerational trauma from residential schools and other assimilation efforts have resulted in a distrust of educational institutions. He said that the way forward is to embrace Indigenous traditions as a motivator for education and action. “We have to go back and learn and understand our old ways so that we can prepare for the risks coming ahead.”