Marten Falls and Webequie lift blockade


KRIS KETONEN, The Chronicle Journal, Thunder Bay –

Date of publication: 
19 March 2010

Mining companies with interests in the Ring of Fire chromite deposit are free to head up to their claims again, as a two-month old First Nations blockade of frozen landing strips there has ended.

The First Nations which have been manning the blockade since it was set up in January — Webequie and Marten Falls — will work with the province and mining companies over the next six months to ensure their concerns are addressed.

“There’s a commitment from everybody to move forward,” Marten Falls Chief Elijah Moonias said after making the announcement during a community luncheon Thursday at Henry Coaster Memorial School in Marten Falls.

The blockades at McFaulds and Koper lakes in the Ring of Fire, about 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, were set up as Marten Falls and Webequie cited a lack of consultation by mining companies.

The Ring of Fire, a 5,000-square-kilometre area in the James Bay Lowlands, holds a potentially massive chromite deposit. It also lies on traditional First Nations territory.

The blockades prevented planes used by mining companies from landing on the airstrips plowed onto the surface of frozen lakes, and thus accessing any claims. The plan, the First Nations said when the blockades went up, was to block any mining progress until progress was made on their demands, which include job training and employment for their members, environmental accountability and completing construction of a new airport in the area.

The demands are still unresolved and all that’s been promised so far is discussions, Webequie and Marten Falls members feel things are far enough along the right track that the blockades were brought down Thursday.

Moonias and Webequie Chief Cornelius Wabasse are to travel to the sites today to formally end the protest.

“I think we’re starting to see progress,” Wabasse said after a public meeting in Webequie, where he informed the band about the development.

“We’re going to be monitoring the progress for the next six months. If we need to sit down, then we’ll sit down . . . and talk about issues that we need to make clear.”

Factoring into the blockade decision, too, Moonias said, was a two-day visit to Ring of Fire-area First Nations communities by Northern Development, Mines and Forestry Minister Michael Gravelle.

Gravelle was in Marten Falls and Webequie Thursday for face-to-face talks with the chiefs, councillors and community members.

Wednesday, he travelled to Neskantaga and Eabametoong for the same reason.

“This is about . . . building a stronger relationship with the communities,” Gravelle said in Webequie. “I believe that we’ve moved forward in a very positive way.”

He said he found out about the blockades being taken down Thursday morning, shortly before it was officially announced. Moonias told him as the pair drove to the Marten Falls mining office from the airport in the chief’s truck.

Thursday’s events were brief. He and Moonias, along with Marten Falls band councillors, sat down for about an hour in the band’s mining office. A community feast followed, which gave Gravelle a chance to chat with other band members.

Gravelle and a small group of ministry staff then hopped a plane for the quick flight to Webequie. Gravelle, Wabasse and other band representatives met in a closed session, which was followed by an hour-long community meeting attended by more than 50 band members, where Gravelle heard the Webequie concerns and spoke to them.

Gravelle’s ministry pledged to respond to a draft memorandum of understanding provided by Marten Falls, and update an existing memorandum of co-operation with Webequie, which dates back to 2004.