When the chief of Cat Lake First Nation gave a button to Ontario’s minister of Indigenous Affairs and Northern Development, he apologized.

“This is what the activities up until now have amounted to,” said Chief Russell Wesley to Greg Rickford. “I told him: 'It’s on. I’m sorry, but it had to come to this and here’s a button.'”

The button, presented by Wesley to Rickford, was displayed Wednesday in a Cat Lake First Nation press release. It shows lynx standing tall over a caricature of Ontario Premier Doug Ford on a bulldozer. The art is a dig at Ford’s promise to develop mining in the North, even if he had to “hop on a bulldozer myself.”

The button Chief Russell Wesley handed to Minister Greg Rickford. Screenshot

“Cat Lake First Nation Strong. Defend Land and Culture,” the button says, setting up a faceoff between Cat Lake leadership and the provincial government over the proposed Springpole gold mine. The proposal, spearheaded by the junior mining company First Mining, sits on Cat Lake First Nation’s traditional territory.

Now Cat Lake leadership is voicing its opposition to Queen’s Park over failing in their duty to consult, conduct proper environmental assessments and keep treaty obligations.

Cat Lake is not opposed to mining development, Wesley reiterated, pointing to mining and revenue-sharing agreements signed in the past. However, the First Nation does not support unsustainable development that is not in line with cultural values around harvesting.

Wesley told Canada’s National Observer the territory where the mine is proposed is a key harvesting area with traplines, high-traffic moose-hunting grounds, and a rare lake that contains trout. It’s used by many of the 600 Cat Lake community members.

There are also worries that cofferdams, used to control the water in the pit area of the mine, will move and disturb trout habitat and prevent their harvesting.

“For me, it doesn’t make environmental sense,” Chief Russell Wesley said about the proposed Springpole mine. “It doesn’t make sense to destroy that much land for that amount of time.”

“The First Nation has to have that ability to take a really serious look to see if [the project] is sustainable,” Wesley said. “Although those things are stacked against it.”

The Springpole project, and Cat Lake’s opposition to it, is another example of the shaky relationship between Queen’s Park and many Ontario chiefs around the development of the North. Canada’s National Observer has been told repeatedly that chiefs don’t have a seat at the table and aren’t part of the discussion around mining development.

For Wesley, the issue is tied to an absent environmental assessment process in the province and a breakdown of treaty obligations, which are supposed to be an agreement between two parties. Instead, Queen’s Park is bulldozing its way to a boom in mining claims in the region.

“Ontario always has the colonial, paternalistic position that you signed an agreement, it’s ours,” he said, referring to the breakdown in the treaty relationship. “And that’s exactly what the problem is.”

Wesley is calling for the province to work with Cat Lake on an 18-month consultation process within the community, so members can decide what is right for the First Nation.

“This is what I was telling Rickford: Your system doesn’t allow that,” Wesley said.

Last week, two moratoriums on mining were passed at a Chiefs of Ontario assembly. The first is a moratorium on mining in Cat Lake traditional territory, the second is on mining stake claims throughout the province, which currently do not require the duty to consult in Ontario.

Earlier this year, British Columbia’s highest court ruled mining claims there did require the duty to consult, throwing the Mineral Tenure Act into an overhaul process. It’s unclear if a similar fate is destined for Ontario, but First Nations leadership has made it clear that Queen’s Park and mining in the province need similar reforms.

First Mining's graphic for the proposed Springpole gold mine. Screenshot

“Meaningful consent is not a request — it's a demand and a must to protect the resources of the North,” Sol Mamakwa, NDP critic for Northern Development, said in a press release about mining claims in Cat Lake territory.

The proposed gold mine on Cat Lake territory is nestled on the north basin of Springpole Lake. It is characterized as one of the largest gold projects in Canada on First Mining’s website. It’s designed to be an open-pit mine with a depth of approximately 350 metres, roughly the size of the Empire State Building, and would have an estimated lifespan of 11.3 years.

“For me, it doesn’t make environmental sense,” Wesley said. “It doesn’t make sense to destroy that much land for that amount of time.”

The provincial government and First Mining did not return requests for comment by publication deadline.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

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When it comes to Doug Ford, none of his disregard for the environment or environmental concerns is ever surprising. After all, he is conservative and conservatives are only interested in serving their corrupt donors and not what is best for the province or the people effected. I only hope the Cat Lake First Nation are successful in putting Doug Ford in his place.