First Nations leaders in northern Ontario are ramping up political pressure on the provincial and federal governments, warning Wednesday that the only way mining projects can proceed in the mineral-rich Ring of Fire is with their participation as full partners. 

Chiefs from 10 Treaty 9 communities announced at Queen’s Park that they are launching a lawsuit to fundamentally change the way resource and land management decisions are made in the region. 

Though the lawsuit deals with language and the understanding of a treaty signed in the early 1900s, the lawyer for the First Nations, Kate Kempton, says the case has major implications for land decisions happening in the Ring of Fire right now. 

The plaintiffs argue they never gave up their rights to manage the lands and say there needs to be a co-jurisdiction regime where the province and Ottawa cannot move forward on land development without their approval. 

‘We do this together or we don’t do it’

The lawsuit is seeking $95 billion in damages for Treaty 9 First Nations and injunctions to prevent the two levels of government from regulating or enforcing regulations in the treaty lands without the consent of the plaintiffs. If there are disputes, they say, it should go to an independent third party, similar to other international treaties. 

“We hear so much about building mines and roads, but not without our community’s permission. There has been zero consultation on these projects,” said Chief Mark Bell of Aroland First Nation.

“Our community is not against development, we are not against industry. We manage forests, we have mines … we’ve been able to do that by giving our permission, working with industry, with other communities around us,” Bell said. “Now we’re at the point where we say, ‘We sit with the government — we do this together or we don’t do it.” 

WATCH | How Neskantaga First Nation is opposing development without its consent: 

First Nation fights to protect land from mineral mining

Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario’s Ring of Fire is fighting to be properly consulted before development begins to start mining for minerals used in many green initiatives, such as batteries for electric vehicles. Members of the First Nation are worried about mining’s impact on their traditional

The Ring of Fire is a crescent-shaped deposit of minerals in Treaty 9 territory, nestled within the James Bay lowlands of northern Ontario. It is the traditional territory of more than a dozen First Nations. Some, like Marten Falls and Webequie, have been vocal proponents of its development, while others have voiced opposition. Several have not made their positions public.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit announced Wednesday claim they never agreed to cede, release, surrender or yield up their jurisdiction to govern and care for the lands, as it says in the written treaty, which was first entered into in 1905.

This case comes as Ontario and Canada have announced several major developments in its critical minerals strategy and electric vehicle (EV) industry, including a plant in southern Ontario that will receive up to $13 billion in subsidies. 

The Ring of Fire is expected to be a key supplier of the raw minerals in Ontario’s effort to capitalize on the growing demand for minerals crucial to new technologies, according to Ontario’s critical minerals strategy that was released last year. 

“Treaty 9 First Nations agreed to share with the Crown, we retained jurisdiction.” said Chief Solomon Atlookan of Eabametoong First Nation. “Despite the posturing of the current government, all the bulldozer claims, it cannot move forward without our consent.” 

Kempton, head representative for the claimants, cautioned this case could lead to court injunctions that could tie up development plans through the courts if governments don’t make changes to how they negotiate and consult with affected First Nations. 

She said she hoped mining companies wanting to work in the region would lobby the governments for the First Nations to make the co-jurisdiction plan happen. 

“Tell them that you need them to sit down and work this out in an equal co-jurisdiction regime,” Kempton said. “Until that happens, there will be a huge amount of uncertainty for those companies. The implication is they are not going to be able to go ahead without full, informed consent.” 

CBC News has reached out to both Ontario Indigenous Affairs Minister Greg Rickford and federal Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller for comment. 

Rickford has not yet been available, and a spokesperson for Miller said they could not provide CBC News with an interview on the lawsuit. 

A group of people stand together, most of them staring ahead, not smiling.
Wayne Moonias, former chief of Neskantaga First Nation, centre in green shirt, is shown at Queen’s Park in Toronto during a demonstration in March. Moonias was there again Wednesday as the chiefs announced the lawsuit. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

This is the second time in the past month that First Nations leaders have gone to Queen’s Park to take their case directly to lawmakers, as they have continued to state their position on the issue, which has remained the same for years. 

In March, leaders from five First Nations in northwestern Ontario disrupted a session of the Ontario Legislature, with Neskantaga Chief Christopher Moonias shouting from the gallery that there should be no development without First Nations’ free, prior and informed consent. 

“We have projects moving forward where we get an email here, an email there — that’s not consultation,” said Bell. “Our people need to be able to make decisions, they need to be able to make informed decisions.” 

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