Approximately six months after it was first introduced into the Ontario Legislature, Bill 173, An Act to amend the Mining Act, received Royal Assent on October 28, 2009. Upon introducing Bill 173 for third reading, Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, Michael Gravelle stated:
“Bill 173 is aimed at bringing our mining legislation into harmony with the values of today’s society while, at the same time, promoting strong, vibrant and competitive minerals industry.”
The Mining Act in Ontario first passed into law in 1873, to govern access to what is considered to be Crown Lands and to begin to develop the natural resources. In 1906, Ontario revised the Mining Act, changing the way access to natural resources occurred and established the free-entry model, which provided priority access to lands and resources for mining and development companies.
The free-entry system applied to all “Crown Lands”, a majority of which are First Nation traditional territories, where prospectors could stake claims to minerals on both public and private lands, without notifying or consulting with the landowners. This included Aboriginal peoples who have land rights as well as the right to be consulted and accommodated. The free-entry model, under the old Mining Act, created controversy as mining companies clashed with the interests of the First Peoples, landowners and the public, prompting the Ontario government under Premier McGuinty to reform the Mining Act.
Section 2 of Bill 173 outlines the purpose of the new Mining Act as “to encourage prospecting, staking and exploration for the development of mineral resources, in a manner consistent with the recognition and affirmation of existing Aboriginal and treaty rights in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, including the duty to consult and to minimize the impact of these activities on public health and safety and the environment.”
While it references the duty to consult, it does not contain the Supreme Court jurisprudence of accommodation or the free, prior, informed consent expected by the First Peoples. Instead, provisions under the application for an exploration permit state that the Director of Exploration shall consider, “whether Aboriginal consultation has occurred……..which may include consideration of any arrangements that have been made with Aboriginal communities that may be affected by the exploration.”
There are also provisions for withdrawing lands that “meet the prescribed criteria as a site of Aboriginal cultural significance.” This can be done under the authority of the Minister, who can order lands be withdrawn from prospecting, staking, sale and lease any lands, mining rights or surface rights that are the property of the Crown.
A withdrawal order “does not affect pre-existing mineral rights and tenure such as mining claims, mining leases or licenses of occupation.” (The claims in Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug traditional territory remain. Platinex and Ontario have extended discussions on their on-going litigation to November 6, 2009.)
However, no mining claims may be staked or recorded on any land, “that is located in the Far North, if a community based land use plan has designated the lands for a use inconsistent with mineral exploration and development.”
Minister Gravelle stated that upon royal assent some provisions went into effect immediately, including, “a clause in all leases and lease renewals highlighting the protection of existing aboriginal and treaty rights provided in Section 35 of the Constitution Act” and “the automatic withdrawal of Crown mineral rights under privately held surface rights in southern Ontario.” (Before 1913, the Crown granted lands that included surface and mineral rights but afterwards lands granted may or may not have included mineral rights.)
For the rest of the Act, the Ministry will be developing the regulations and policies, in consultation with stakeholders, before they can come into effect. Minister Gravelle stated that his ministry will consult on the development of the regulations and policies dealing with Aboriginal consultation throughout the mining sequence, including the criteria and the process for withdrawing sites of aboriginal significance; exploration plans and permits, including terms, conditions and requirements for early exploration; clarifying the existing consultation process for closure plans for advanced exploration and mine development projects; and a dispute resolution process for Aboriginal-related mining issues.
As of August 11, 2009, there are 250 active mineral exploration projects in northwestern Ontario and approximately 8000 claims made by mining companies grandfathered under Section 14.3 where withdrawal orders do not affect pre-existing mining rights and tenure such as mining claims, mining leases or licenses of occupation.
Also, under Part XIV- Far North, it states: “The validity of any mining claims, mining leases, patents, and licenses of occupation for mining purposes located in the Far North and any related approvals for mineral exploration and development activity shall not be affected by a community based land use plan or any amendment to such a plan that is inconsistent with mining purposes, if the consistent designation was made after the mining claims, mining leases, patents, and licenses of occupation for mining purposes or the related approvals for mineral explorations and development activities were issued.”
In conclusion, it appears that mining will continue to be “strong, vibrant and competitive” throughout Noopemig while the regulations and policies are being developed for the Aboriginal-specific clauses of Bill 173-the “new” Mining Act. It will be up to the First Peoples to decide how and if, they want to provide input into the regulations.