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Rural communities push back as mining claims surge

PHOTO BY PARILOV/SHUTTERSTOCK

Approximately 60 kilometres north of Ottawa, a small Quebec municipality is taking a stand against mining exploration in the area.

After hearing feedback from locals, the municipality of Low, Que., decided during a January 8th council meeting to support its population in resisting mining development. The decision came after the municipality noticed a “proliferation of mining claims on private land as well as on public land, on the territory of the Municipality of the Township of Low and neighbouring municipalities,” council said.

The rise in Quebec mining claims is due, in part, to the increased demand for minerals such as lithium and phosphate, which are used in batteries, especially those needed to power electric vehicles. According to mining industry watchdog Mining Watch, there are approximately 338,000 active mining claims in Quebec, nearly 140,000 of which were approved in the last two years.

Similar situations to Low have happened in other more populated areas of Quebec. Last year, Gatineau residents were informed that an exploration company had acquired mining claims for land surrounding the city. Taking a similar route to Gatineau, Low plans to apply for a TIAM (Territory Incompatible with Mining Activity). This is an exemption that can be granted by Quebec’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests, banning mining development from the area.

During the January 8th meeting, council cited the harmful impacts of mining projects on water and the fact that many households in the area draw their water either from groundwater through wells or aqueducts, or directly from lakes, streams, and rivers as a reason for the TIAM. It also mentioned the region’s goal of promoting recreation, tourism, and agriculture.

In Quebec, a mining claim of approximately 50 hectares of land can be bought for $75. This includes privately owned land. While mining claims are generally banned from being purchased on land used for public purposes, including public buildings, sports fields, arenas, libraries, parks, and skating rinks, as well as any residential or cottage lot that’s smaller than one hectare, other private space is open to be explored.

Ontario has similar laws. But one major difference is that the Ontario government decided in 2009 that mining claims had to be withdrawn from all privately owned land in southern Ontario due to its dense population. Private land in Northern Ontario, however, is still open to mining claims. If a prospector purchases a mining claim on privately owned land in Northern Ontario, they must inform the landowner (also known as the surface rights holder). This means that a municipality in Northern Ontario is susceptible to the same situation as Low. In fact, Low might actually have stronger protections.

“My sense is that the province of Quebec has strengthened the sustainability and even local oversight components in their Mining Act in the last five to six years,” says Craig Johnson, a professor at the University of Guelph who studies the extractive and environmental impacts of mining. “Over the same time period, it seems to me that the province of Ontario has tried to make it easier [for prospectors] to go through these processes.”

A mining claim in Ontario doesn’t necessarily mean a mine will be built. In fact, according to the Ontario Mining Association, fewer than 1 in 10,000 projects become mines, either from lack of desirable minerals or from being bogged down by additional permissions from the Ministry of Natural Development, Mines, Natural Resources, and Forestry, as well as paying for site assessments and coming to an agreement with the surface rights holder about compensation for any damage to the land.

If a mine is approved, though, Ontario lacks an official route for banning mining development like Quebec’s TIAM system. Instead, Johnson says that a minister from another ministry, such as Environment, Conservation, and Parks, could step in and invalidate a mining claim if there is a threat to the area.

Similar to Quebec, Ontario is experiencing a deluge of mining claims, particularly in territories belonging to First Nations groups. Last week, the Chiefs of Ontario—a group that represents all First Nations in the province—called on the Ontario government for a 365-day moratorium on mining claims.

“Mining claim-staking continues to grow at a pace that far outstrips the ability for First Nations to respond and directly impacts our inherent, treaty, and constitutionally protected rights,” the group said in a statement.

Over the past year, some First Nations groups have seen mining claims rise by 30 per cent on their territories. Under the current system, prospectors can make a claim online without having to interact with the First Nations group. “As a result, the area of land that has been staked is automatically removed from Treaty and Crown land that First Nations may have otherwise had access to add to reserve land, convert into parks, or is land that is currently undergoing land settlements via claims negotiations,” the Chiefs of Ontario said.

Johnson brings up a further issue. The mining industry is so driven by the market, especially those mining for minerals such as lithium, that many mines are abandoned within 10 years. “The big strategy on the part of mining companies is to wind up and wind down operations very quickly. We’re seeing that right now with lithium. The spot price for lithium has tanked in the last three, four weeks. On a global level, the big lithium miners are shedding costs, laying off employees, and shutting down production,” Johnson says. “And then you’re left with a literal hole in the ground, and oftentimes groundwater contamination from arsenic and mercury.”

These are the types of issues prompting Low and other Canadian municipalities to look at ways of blocking mining development. Johnson says Low’s decision could be reflective of future cases. “People talk to one another, and they may have learned from experience and just thought, We better act now before it’s too late.”

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