Birch Narrows Dene Nation tells Toronto company to leave its territory

·13 min read

Saskatchewan Indigenous leadership are calling on Toronto-based uranium mining company Baselode Energy Corp. to stop surveys on Birch Narrows Dene Nation traditional territory in the far north unless consent is given.

A permit was issued last month by the province to Baselode for access to land near Turnor Lake, on the edge of the Athabasca Basin and traditional territory of the Birch Narrows Dene Nation, while consultations with the community were still ongoing.

The company set up camp and began conducting surveys on Birch Narrows resident Leonard Sylvestre’s trapline in an area traditionally used for such activities by the community.

Birch Narrows Dene Elder advisor and trapper Ron Desjardin said it felt like an invasion.

“I don't like what they did. They were very disrespectful, unfortunately. If they had any sense or any knowledge of what goes on in our country regarding Indigenous issues they would have stepped back, they would have not chosen to do this, but they went ahead anyway.”

Having presented Baselode with a cease and desist order, Birch Narrows officials set up a blockade when they found that the company was not respecting promises to stop surveys, but took it down and are now patrolling the area regularly.

“They threatened us if we set up a blockade ‘an illegal action’ and never mind the fact that they were on somebody's trapline,” Desjardin said.

“They threatened us with legal action and they were trying to make it look like ‘oh our people, they're not safe.’ They even went to the RCMP saying ‘we want to ensure that our people are going to be safe.’”

That mentality, Desjardin said, feels to him like the company is treating them like they’re “savages.”

“That's what really ticks me off,” he said. “We're still viewed that way.”

Birch Narrows is currently dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and Baselode crews went through the reserve, where they had left some equipment on their way to the survey site, Desjardin said.

Baselode Energy Corp. President and CEO James Sykes said in a written response that his company believes a “near-term solution is achievable” and will look to “continue with its exploration activities in due course.”

“Upon learning of the Community’s objections the Company has paused on-site work to continue further consultation with the local communities,” Sykes said.

“Since applying for permits in October 2020, Baselode has proactively engaged in a positive and constructive dialogue consistent with the duty to consult and accommodate process. We share the common goal of a desire to proceed with mutually beneficial objectives, environmental considerations, and economic development opportunities.”

Sykes said there have been mischaracterizations of the circumstances that the company deems to be inaccurate.

“We have no further comment at this time as we choose to continue our ongoing positive dialogue directly with the community,” Sykes said.

Baselode did send further comments through a law firm in Regina.

The letter accused Desjardin of saving his allegations for “long after” they left the site. They alleged that he “has a history on this file of making inaccurate and inflammatory statements as part of his crusade and the illegal blockade.”

The response came after the Herald asked specific questions about an interaction between a contractor and people staffing the checkpoint. The Herald is continuing to look into the interaction.

The letter said Baselode is a “highly respected publicly traded exploration company” that has “built a reputation for going above and beyond in its interactions with indigenous people.”

Ministry of Environment spokesperson Chris Hodges confirmed that Saskatchewan Minister of Environment Warren Kaeding met with the Birch Narrows Dene Nation to discuss the situation.

“Minister Kaeding had an opportunity to discuss the matter further with Chief Jonathan Sylvestre of Birch Narrows Dene Nation and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations. The Minister encourages that all parties involved continue to communicate and work together in a respectful and safe manner,” Hodges said.

The ministry said it recognizes the lands in question have been used traditionally by the community but that “deliberately blocking public Crown lands is illegal” and can be a public safety issue.

In addition to having two separate meetings with the community on Jan. 20 and on Feb. 9, the province said Baselode engaged by way of a radio broadcast describing the proposed mineral exploration and gave an opportunity to pose questions.

The ministry confirmed that Baselode made a presentation available to the public and leadership through the distribution of flash drives and a printed report. Previous attempts to meet were postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks and a funeral.

The ministry said it wants both parties to work together to “build a positive and mutually beneficial relationship so that opportunities can be discussed and evaluated.”

‘Bad business’ called out by leadership

Desjardin said the core issue is that the Baselode was under the impression from the province that consultation with Indigenous communities is optional and that permits issued by Saskatchewan are sufficient to begin operations.

He said the problem hinges on a lack of clarity around the duty to consult — a responsibility that ultimately lies with the Crown as opposed to industry.

“When Canada came up with this whole duty to consult they told the territories and provinces to start doing business a different way. They were given this mandate to accommodate Indigenous rights and there were some clear guidelines, Desjardin said.

“The Saskatchewan government turned this around and they've given this responsibility to industry. Industry now is in a conflict of interest because they want those resources. There was a failure to meaningfully address our concerns and too much reliance on industry to address the concerns.”

He said provinces develop their own consultation protocols in line with what Canada expects and “Saskatchewan is way behind.”

“Consultation and accommodation is not a means to an end nor an end in itself. There needs to be an opportunity to advance reconciliation for the purpose of improving relationships because that's what's lacking right now.”

Birch Narrows Dene Nation Chief Jonathan Sylvestre said that resource developers need to understand that provincial permits don’t override the rights of First Nations or the consultation process and the community expects to be involved prior to any resource development or extraction on their traditional lands.

“First Nations must be meaningfully and properly engaged on issues that have the potential to adversely impact our rights. It’s been especially difficult to meet deadlines during COVID- 19, while our efforts are keeping our communities safe — not on rubber stamping resource development activities in our territories,” Sylvestre said.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) Chief Bobby Cameron said Saskatchewan has no authority to authorize permits without engaging with First Nations and without providing the opportunity to give input.

“Stay off our lands unless given consent by the First Nation.”

FSIN Vice Chief Heather Bear said Indigenous connections to the land, water, animals and environment are paramount.

“These kinds of bad business practices won’t be tolerated anymore,” Bear said.

“Resource exploration and extraction within our territories presents our treaty hunters and gatherers with real problems, especially when it impacts their ability to exercise their Inherent and Treaty rights to hunt, fish, trap and gather.”

The province said the ministry approved phase 1 of Baselode’s project on Jan. 27 and issued a permit for preliminary exploration, authorizing a survey with “very low impact” on the environment.

Surveyors can access the area on snowmobile or in a snow-cat and collect ground gravity readings on foot to decide where to propose drilling. That information would then be given to the community.

The next phase of exploration, for which a permit has not been issued, would involve core sampling after undergoing the consultation and community engagement process.

The province said the Turnor Lake community and Baselode Energy are discussing plans for a comprehensive traditional land study in the area that it says falls outside the duty to consult process which focuses on how a community currently uses the area.

According to the province, engagement with Indigenous communities by industry is separate from duty to consult obligations held by the province in this context and those discussions don’t influence the permitting process or timeframes.

Meadow Lake Tribal Council Tribal Chief Richard Ben said the province needs to provide already underfunded First Nations with the financial resources to be able to participate at the table “in a meaningful way.”

“Otherwise, many First Nations will be left out of the process. We can’t undertake studies at our own expense in order to be consulted on resource development within our territory,” Ben said.

The Government of Saskatchewan First Nation and Métis Consultation Policy Framework, drafted in 2010, states that Saskatchewan “does not accept assertions by First Nations or Métis that Aboriginal title continues to exist with respect to either lands or resources in Saskatchewan.”

Desjardin says that’s insulting. He said while lip service is paid to engaging with First Nations, those words don’t ring true when they’re contradicted in policy.

“The duty to consult document is outdated. How can a document support us on one hand and then tell us that on the other hand ‘you've got nothing here.’ It’s a weak document, it’s a contradictory document and it’s a patronizing document. It's not serving its purpose, not doing what it's supposed to do,” Desjardin said.

‘Cultural survival’ depends on wildlife habitat

Desjardin said his community has long relied on an abundance of caribou and moose, who feed in muskeg areas such as the proposed exploration site near Harding Bay.

Canada’s Species at Risk Act considers woodland caribou as a threatened species. Saskatchewan has not yet finished its habitat assessment for the Boreal Shield and Desjardin wants that data to be available before development happens in the area.

“The provinces and territories agreed to come up with a solution, to come up with plans to address this. Saskatchewan is really late. Our area was supposed to be done in June of this year. And that's what I've been pleading with the ministry saying, ‘hold off, hold on, let's find out where the caribou are at.’ How can you make a meaningful decision if you're not basing it on scientific data?” Desjardin said.

“We’ve proposed setting aside that whole area as a preserve to save those caribou because they do mean a lot to us. It's our grocery store. That's what it is. We’d like everything to be put on hold. Give us at least a year so that we can do our own research and we can find out where we’re at with everything that we want and then let’s talk.”

The ministry said it initiated the duty to consult process with the Indigenous communities of Turnor Lake Oct. 27 last year for Baselode's proposal for mineral exploration on “unoccupied, public Crown land” about 50 kilometres northeast of the community.

The process was extended so the community had more time to discuss the project and voice concerns to the ministry. The province said those concerns included impact to caribou, impact to trapping, the development of a new trail to the exploration site and a heavy haul ice road for equipment.

Early concerns expressed about the new access roads were addressed by changing the program to a heli-assist, which reduces overall impact, the ministry said.

Desjardin said the government and industry need to realize that there are “deeper issues” with the unique habitat of that area.

“We are fighting for our cultural survival. That’s what we’re doing right now and that’s why we feel so strongly about this. Do we want a uranium mine in the middle of that knowing the possible consequences if anything ever happened with our watershed? Of course not. Do we really want something that’s going to lead to the demise and extinction of our caribou in that area? No, we don’t,” Desjardin said.

“This is something that you need to listen to. We’re not totally against industry. We know people need jobs. But we’d like a say. Listen to us, this is why we don’t want it there.”

‘Speaking from the heart’ to build good partnerships

Desjardin said companies that have built successful partnerships with Birch Narrows have gone through the full process of a meaningful consultation.

“They sat down with people, they listened to the pros and cons, they addressed each of those issues as well as they could. They didn't hide anything and they were transparent,” Desjardin said.

He said Baselode should follow the example set by NexGen Energy Ltd., another uranium company that operates in the Athabasca Basin.

“When they drafted a benefit agreement here with Birch Narrows they chose not to call it an impact benefit agreement, they chose to call it a mutual benefit agreement and I thought that was awesome because they didn't rush. It took time,” Desjardin said.

“They didn't come and say, ‘Okay, here's our timeline. We have until December. Please make a decision now.’ Basically, that's what Baselode did to us. We're saying ‘No, you have to fit into our timelines.’ We live here.”

Desjardin said the issue is part of long-standing unresolved Indigenous grievances in Canada.

“It's all about relationships. Canada and the province have to stop hiding behind their documents and their policies. We're speaking from the heart. We don't hide behind policies and documents because this means something to us. It might not mean much to somebody living in Saskatoon but it does to us,” Desjardin said.

“It's a dichotomous relationship because we're going down this line and we're not bridging any gaps. Everyone's on their own. No wonder we've got all these issues. We need to bridge that gap and start respecting each other.”

Citing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission calls to action Desjardin said it’s important to establish and maintain a mutually respectful relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada.

In order for that to happen there has to be awareness of the past, acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted, atonement for the causes and action to change behaviour. “Saskatchewan is falling short on the action part,” Desjardin said.

“I like what Chief Dr. Robert Joseph (a Hereditary Chief of the Gwawaenuk First Nation in British Columbia) said. Like he said, I want you to dream and imagine what reconciliation would look like in 20, 30 and 40 years from now on,” Desjardin said.

“When we are reconciled, we will live together in harmony, be gentle with one another, we will be caring and compassionate. When we are reconciled every person living here will live with dignity, purpose and value. That's where Canada and Saskatchewan need to go.”

Michael Bramadat-Willcock, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Northern Advocate