A New Paradigm for Aboriginal Consultation in Ontario: What Miners Need to Know

by Dentons

[author: David Hunter]

This article was prepared by David Hunter, Nalin Sahni and George McKibbon (McKibbon Wakefield Inc.)

The repeal and re-enactment of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (“CEAA”) and amendments to other federal environmental legislation amounts to the most significant change in federal environmental assessment (“EA”) since the legislation was first created decades ago. These amendments are clearly aimed at increasing investment in extractive industries by encouraging certainty, reducing regulatory duplication and shortening delays. The implications of these changes are vast and their full impact on the mining industry is not known.

This is the third article in our series on the changes to the federal environmental assessment regime and what that means for mining in Ontario. Our first article provided a general overview of the changes and our second article discussed changes in CEAA related to Aboriginal consultation. In this article, we discuss how the new CEAA will interact with several changes to Ontario mining legislation to create a new Aboriginal consultation regime in Ontario.

Since the amendment of the Constitution in 1982 to include recognition of Aboriginal and Treaty rights, Canadian governments have been engaged in a process of reforming laws and policies to recognize these new rights. To prevent conflicts with Aboriginal peoples, the 2007 Ipperwash inquiry identified the regulation and development of natural resources on Aboriginal lands as a key area of reform. Justice Linden concluded that the

management of natural resources must take into account the rights and interests of Aboriginal people more effectively. I believe there are ways of sharing and co-managing natural resources that are consistent with Aboriginal and treaty rights while serving the interests of first nations and the people of Ontario¹.

It is against this backdrop that Ontario has announced new changes to facilitate Aboriginal consultation for mining in Ontario. As described below, the new regulations proposed under Ontario’s Mining Act and the Far North Act amount to a new paradigm for mining and Aboriginal consultation in Ontario. We hope that the requirements for consultation in Ontario will also satisfy CEAA requirements but this is far from certain.

Changes to Ontario’s Mining Act and Regulations
The purpose clause of the Mining Act has been amended. Mineral resources must now be developed in a manner consistent with the recognition and affirmation of existing Treaty and Aboriginal rights including the duty to consult. This change in purpose has led to a new regulatory scheme that is expected to include detailed consultation requirements at each stage in the mine development process from early exploration to mine closure.

Under the proposed regulations, Aboriginal peoples must be notified when mining claims are recorded within their traditional use areas. Exploration plans are required for low impact activities (e.g. surveys that require a power generator) and exploration permits are required for moderate impact activities (e.g. drilling with equipment over 150 kg). For both exploration plans and permits, miners must notify / consult with Aboriginal peoples. Aboriginal peoples will have the ability to make their concerns and objections known at the start of the mining process. While this is likely to reduce conflicts, it could greatly lengthen the mine development process. Further, sites of Aboriginal cultural significance have been withdrawn from claim staking.

The proposed exploration planning and permitting requirements in the Mining Act are not expected to directly interact with the changes to CEAA, a since they operate at different stages in the mine development process. However, Aboriginal consultation requirements for mine production and closure plans could significantly overlap with the Aboriginal consultation requirements under the new CEAA. At present it is unclear if consultation under the Mining Act will count as consultation under the new CEAA regime or if additional consultations will be required. If these two requirements are not harmonized it could lengthen the environmental assessment and Aboriginal consultation process.

The New Far North Act
The Far North Act is essentially a land use planning statute for the northern-most 42% of Ontario. This huge area is home to 24,000 people, 90% of whom are Aboriginal. While half of the 450,000 km2 in the far north must be an interconnected protected area, one of the most important pieces of information for miners is that mines cannot be opened until community-based land use plans are developed for each region in the far north.

The land use planning process must be initiated by Aboriginal peoples in each area and the final plan must be approved by not only the Ontario government but each of the participating First Nation bands in the area. So far, only four land use plans have been developed in the far north and it could be a long-time before a significant portion of the far north is open to mining. The policies used to develop additional land use plans under the Far North Act will strongly influence whether these plans satisfy some or all of the EA and Aboriginal consultation requirements under the new CEAA.

South of the Far North Act area, Crown land use plans may be prepared under s. 12 of the Public Lands Act. Where approved plans exist, activities carried out in the planning area must be consistent with the approved plan. At present, Crown Land Use Planning Guidelines are for the most part silent on addressing mining or the concerns of Aboriginal peoples and do not assess impacts on Aboriginal peoples or the natural environment as required by CEAA.

A New Aboriginal Consultation Paradigm
Between the changes to CEAA, the new Mining Act purpose clause and regulations and the Far North Act, Aboriginal law is now firmly embedded in the mine development process from start to finish. There are now regulatory and Aboriginal consultation requirements for miners in Ontario starting with early exploration plans and ending with mine closure plans. Aboriginal participation and cooperation is now a core part of the CEAA environmental assessment process (see our second article). These changes, taken together, are beginning to operationalize the Aboriginal provisions of the Constitution and give some sense of what these rights mean in practice.

However, many questions remain unanswered. With all of these new Aboriginal consultation requirements at both the federal and provincial levels, it is unclear if there will be sufficient coordination (or harmonization) between the Ontario and the Federal government to make this Aboriginal consultation regime work in practice. Aboriginal consultation at the provincial level must be accepted to meet federal requirements and vice versa. Federal-provincial harmonization of environmental assessments (including Aboriginal consultation) was a key recommendation of the Drummond Report (see our March 2012 article) but it has not yet been implemented into practice.

At a minimum, coordination between federal and provincial governments should include:

  • The sharing and acceptance of information between federal and provincial authorities (including Aboriginal consultation information);
  • Allowing federal and provincial regulatory processes to run concurrently and
  • Timely review by both levels of government.

Otherwise, the new Aboriginal consultation regime will create significant delays for miners and we suspect that governments may be forced to use the highly controversial cabinet override provisions contained in each of the these statues to ensure that projects are not cancelled because of endless delays.


¹ Linden, Sidney B. Report of the Ipperwash Inquiry. Toronto: Published by Ministry of the Attorney General, Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 2007 at Volume 2, page 44.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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