Canada’s top court ruled in favour of the Grand Council of the Crees in regards to a six-year battle sparked by a mining company’s attempt to leave the Crees out of the equation when it came to obtaining mining permits for a vanadium mine on Cree territory.

Six years ago, Lac Dore Mining Inc. proposed a mining project on Lac Dore on Category III land within the Oujé-Bougoumou trapline to exploit the land for vanadium, a chemical element used in the production of steel alloys.

According to Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come, at the time the mining company claimed that there were 10 million tons of reserves within the area they were looking to develop and that the mine would have a lifespan of 40 years.

“I believe that the numbers corresponded to something like 12% of the world wide vanadium consumption. This would be the only mine of its kind in North America,” said Coon Come.

According to Coon Come, Lac Dore Mining Inc. forwarded its notice of the project to the Quebec Ministry of Environment and then filed an environmental impact statement with the deputy minister. The impact statement was then forwarded to COMEX which is necessary is under Section 22 of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) as the Cree participant.

Federal officials concluded that the project would have an impact on fisheries and therefore required a federal permit under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEEA). However, the CEAA contained no provisions for Cree participation, which was a violation of the JBNQA. The JBNQA provides for automatic participation of the Crees for any development within Category I, II or III lands.

The Grand Council then moved to take the case to Quebec Superior Court to uphold their rights provided within the JBNQA. The Quebec government’s argument however was that the provincial environmental review had sufficient provisions regarding the situation and would be sufficient, despite the fact that it excluded the Crees.

“We were seeking the legal restrictions or limitations of the JBNQA for a federal review process rather than a CEEA federal review process. This is because the federal review process under the JBNQA provides automatic Cree participation whereas CEAA does not,” said Coon Come.

Coon Come said part of why the Crees were pushing so hard in this particular court case was because they would not want to see their constitutionally granted rights through the JBNQA replaced by the CEEA.

On May 13, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Crees, stating that all proposed projects on Cree territory must be subject to the federal review process with Cree participation granted in the JBNQA as well as a provincial review process and not just the latter.

“This is a victory not just for the Crees, but for the environment, for Eeyou Istchee and elsewhere because it affirms a treaty right and recognizes a process where the Crees have a right to participate,” said Coon Come.

Lac Dore Mining Inc will now have to submit to a federal process outlined in the JBNQA so that the Crees can have a say in the project and then they will also have to submit to the provincial review process.

At the same time, Coon Come was quick to say that this victory does not mean the Grand Council/Cree Regional Authority took an anti-development stance in this case.

“The Grand Council welcomes resource development in the territory, provided that it respects Cree rights and Cree interests. This development must comply with the environmental and social protection regimes that are set forth under section 22 of the JBNQA, which goes to respect the JBNQA as a treaty. It should respect Cree treaty rights and provide for Cree participation and benefits,” said Coon Come.

According to Coon Come, this court ruling was not only a victory for the Crees and the environment but also for Aboriginal communities and treaty rights because it is very symbolic of Cree determination since there is a balance struck between the Cree traditional economy and Cree participation in the modern economy. He said the implementation of the JBNQA as a treaty and it ensuring Cree participation is crucial and therefore a victory.