First Nations protesters blockaded the way in and out of the largest new mine development in the province on Monday and issued their own self-styled stop-work order.
Work was disrupted Monday at HudBay Minerals' Lalor mine site, about 12 kilometres west of Snow Lake. Snow Lake is about 680 kilometres north of Winnipeg, between Thompson and Flin Flon.
Arlen Dumas, chief of Mathias Colomb Cree Nation (MCCN) at Pukatawagan, said he and others were asserting what they believe to be their sovereignty over unceded ancestral traditional territory, where the Lalor mine is located.
Dumas was joined by about 30 people, including Assembly of First Nations regional chief Bill Traverse, and Pam Palmater, a spokeswoman for the Idle No More movement and academic director of the Centre for Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.
After about three hours of blocking the main gate in what by all accounts was a peaceful and orderly demonstration, Brad Lanz, HudBay's senior executive in northern Manitoba, came and spoke with the protesters on Monday afternoon.
"We had an agreement with RCMP and they were very helpful in our attempts to assert our sovereignty on this day," Dumas said.
HudBay is building a $700 million-plus copper/zinc/gold mine and concentrator in a region that it has been mining since the 1950s. The company is in the process of winding down another mine in the Snow Lake region, called Chisel Lake North, just as the Lalor mine is set to open.
Some in the mining industry said HudBay had lived up to its duty to consult with MCCN, but Dumas said it was not sufficient.
"I have been chief since 2008 and we have been working on this since then," Dumas said. "Unfortunately, any meaningful discussions we have attempted to have as a community have not garnered any results. So we had to resort to this type of action to draw attention to the real issue."
In an email exchange, John Vincic, a spokesman for HudBay's head office in Toronto, said, "We've been consulting with the Mathias Colomb Cree Nation and the provincial government for more than a year and will continue to. We believe in the well-established, constructive relationship we have with MCCN and we are confident that will continue to support discussions in any area of mutual interest."
Dumas said this was about more than the mining company's duty to consult.
"It is about consent and ownership of our land," he said. "We are a stakeholder. We have to be treated as such. We own the resource. We need to be at the table. We do not want beads and trinkets anymore."
He said a share in resource revenue would be part of the solution but there was more to it than that.
Clarence Fisher, the mayor of Snow Lake, said he felt lucky to live in a country that allows protests, but he said he was disappointed the protesters disrupted workers' ability to get to and from work.
"The other thing I would say is that there have been mines here since 1956 and this is the first time this kind of claim has been made (by a local First Nation)," he said. "David Harper (grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, MKO, the organization of northern Manitoba chiefs) spoke at the first blast at the mine in the fall of 2010, and at that time everything seemed fine."
Ed Huebert, executive vice-president of the Mining Association of Manitoba, said it is working with MKO to establish closer working relationships with the mining companies in the region.