Tribal leaders have alleged there is a large-scale mining project under way at Orkney Island
A new discovery of rare earth minerals in an ancient burial ground on Vancouver Island, offered to Canadian and international mining companies last year, has been quickly turned into a controversy for the Ontario government, which has been accused of cancelling environmental approvals.
The province’s minister of natural resources, Sylvia Jones, on Wednesday disputed allegations that the new find, made by hereditary chiefs of the North Slope Qu’Appelle Cree Nation, near Hohe See, was fraudulently covered up, saying “the provincial government was completely unaware of this significant discovery”.
Tribal leaders allege there is a large-scale mining project under way at Orkney Island. Jones said last October that it was possible, though not likely, that the earth already had significant reserves of rare earth minerals. But a long-term estimate for how much rare earth minerals there are has not been completed.
“It takes a long time for sophisticated science to tell you how much is there,” said Robert Flemming, chief executive of the North Slope Qu’Appelle Cree Nation. “If there was a large-scale mine, that would have happened earlier.”
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On Tuesday, Jones released a statement that stated that not only was “the government not aware of this significant discovery”, it was being opposed by “some local First Nations communities” and had been considered by the Ministry of Natural Resources.
Kate Robinson, provincial government spokeswoman, said the ministry received notice of the finding in August and then met the former governor general of Canada, Michaëlle Jean, in September, who assured her that “all applications for exploration were being fully approved”.
The ministry said that all applications for water licences, mineral exploration and reclamation licences were being “approved in a timely fashion”.
In response to Jones’s statement, the Cree Nation issued a statement saying that it had been denied a consultative meeting with Jones and all exploration permits that she decided to cancel were based on a map it provided in 2014. It alleged that the ministry had “trickery and bad faith”.
There are some 67,000 official archeological sites across Ontario, but planning and development services director Marcy Dyke said the ministry had no information about whether the recent discovery was one of them.
It is not known if rare earths in this burial ground are rarer than others. One executive at a Toronto-based geophysics firm, who asked to remain anonymous, said that there may be “a few” rare earths near Hohe See, but none were found by the company doing the excavation.
Dr David Devenney, director of the Native American Research Centre at the University of Saskatchewan, said that although rare earths can be found in both climate zones, some are rarer than others.
“Rare earths are two different minerals. In the north America where Hohe See is located, we have much less [of the mineral] than in places like the central or southeastern United States,” he said.
But Dyke argued that it was possible that certain rare earths were more rare in the region than in other parts of Canada.
“There is a big and complex geology in the region and it’s a long way from every mine,” she said. “There are various factors that can influence the likelihood of finding these rare earths. One is just the geography. That would include other elements, more ‘A-team’, low-oxygen volcanic rocks.”
In 2013, the African nation of Zambia had to give up on an offshore gemstone prospect after it could not find any rare earths, Devenney said. A 2013 report by the US Geological Survey noted that there were but “little evidence” that rare earths are found in the Great Lakes region, saying that this area was more likely to be a destination for rare earths from China.
But Devenney said that while the Great Lakes region lacked most of the rare earths found in Canada and the United States, “basically just one of them would play a key role in a future supply chain”.