MNDM's Mineral Development Strategy for Ontario

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In 2007, the ECO undertook an extensive analysis of the environmental implications of various land use policies and allocation decisions in Ontario’s northern boreal landscape. The following articles are included:

In March 2006, the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM) finalized its Mineral Development Strategy for Ontario. Its goal is “to reinforce Ontario’s international position as a leading mining jurisdiction and foster responsible mineral development for the benefit of all citizens of Ontario.” The mineral strategy contains numerous recommended actions in support of its four central objectives:

  • “Promoting long-term sustainability and global competitiveness;
  • Supporting modern, safe and environmentally sound exploration and mining;
  • Clarifying and modernizing mineral resource stewardship; and,
  • Promoting community development and opportunities for all.”

MNDM’s strategy revolves entirely around the promotion of mining in Ontario, with little consideration given to the larger responsibilities of the Ontario government, such as land use planning or environmental protection. Part of the ministry’s rationale for creating this strategy was that “public perception has lagged behind. … A negative perception of mining and misconceptions about the industry could foster unwarranted public concerns and make it more difficult for Ontario to attract much-needed investment in new projects and expansions.”

MNDM takes the position that mining is the preeminent land use on Crown lands, which has enormous implications on other ministries that, arguably, are forced into secondary roles. The mineral strategy states that “Ontario’s Far North (the area north of the current limits for commercial timber harvesting) is poised to become one of the province’s newest and most vibrant mining areas.” Indeed, the mineral strategy’s self-described “balanced” approach directs that “all Crown land-use planning processes … [should give] additional consideration to areas with the highest mineral potential before finalizing any land-use decisions that could prohibit exploration or mining on these lands.”

The mineral strategy provides few details as to how the ministry will safeguard the environment, stating ambiguously that “the province needs clear targets and processes that will facilitate industry’s efforts to attain higher standards.” This lack of detail is not reassuring in light of the ministry’s promotional material targeted at international investment, which states that Ontario has a “streamlined process for obtaining mineral development permits.”

The mineral development strategy all but ignores that mining is but one of many possible land uses in northern Ontario. The strategy is silent on the need for planning beyond asserting that MNDM, in conjunction with MNR, is “exploring potential approaches for land-use planning in Ontario’s Far North.” Mineral development does have an important role to play in Ontario, but the ministry must ensure that the ‘sustainability’ component of its mandate extends beyond solely economic interests, and that it dovetails with the broader responsibilities of the Ontario government.

In December 2006, the ECO received an EBR application requesting regulatory reform related to the assessment of the environmental impacts of proposed mining projects. The applicants asserted that, although mining projects may require approvals for a number of related activities – such as approvals for energy generation, road construction and permits to take water – there is usually no individual environmental assessment conducted for the entire project. The applicants also asserted that it is necessary for the ecological impact of mining projects in their entirety, from staking to reclamation and remediation, be assessed prior to any approvals.

There are a variety of laws, regulations and processes that govern mineral development in Ontario. These measures include the Mining Act, various class EAs, and numerous permitting processes under statutes such as the Ontario Water Resources Act. However, the central argument of this EBR application is that this system is “uncoordinated,” and results in a “piecemeal assessment” of potential environmental harm. For further detail on this application, see 2007 Review of the Need for Comprehensive Land Use Planning in the North .

There are strong arguments that reforms to the Mining Act and its associated legal mechanisms are needed. The existing regulatory structure treats public land as freely open to mineral exploration. The consideration of other interests, such as the protection of ecological values, is reactionary, and the question of whether mineral development may be inappropriate is not answered upfront. Instead, it is assumed that mineral development is appropriate almost everywhere and that it is the “best” use of Crown land in almost all circumstances.

Ontario’s Mining Act, and its presumption of free entry for mineral development, impedes land use planning. Ecological values should not only be identified, but they should also form the foundation of a comprehensive land use planning regime that possesses legal authority. Without legal authority and designation, the identification of ecological values is virtually meaningless. For example, in the early 1980s, the Attawapiskat Karst was identified as an Area of Natural and Scientific Interest, and the Attawapiskat River was identified as a candidate waterway class provincial park by MNR as part of “extensive strategic land use planning to develop land use direction for Crown lands.” However, this planning held no legal weight and neither of these areas was withdrawn from staking. As a result, approximately 33 km of the river adjacent to the Victor Diamond Mine was extensively staked and it will no longer be considered as a candidate for protection. Further, despite identifying this river as a candidate for protection, more than two decades have passed without any steps being taken to regulate the rest of the river.

The ECO also believes that the existing regulatory structure for mining does not adequately assess the cumulative impacts of development. It is evident that the various existing approvals processes are highly compartmentalized. The ECO expressed a similar concern in our 2003/2004 Annual Report with regard to mineral development, stating, “Each of the ministries followed their formal approvals processes. However, the system’s current checks and balances did not prevent a result with potentially distressing environmental consequences.”

This century-old system continues to rely on principles that are no longer reflective of modern planning or resource management. As noted in a 2004 review of Canadian mining law by West Coast Environmental Law, “Once mine exploration has occurred, and there is a desire to build a mine, industry pressure is such that it is virtually impossible to prohibit this development in order to respect other land uses and objectives.”

The ECO believes that ecological values that merit protection should be proactively identified by MNR, and that applicable lands should be withdrawn from eligibility for prospecting and staking by MNDM. This approach would give greater certainty to the mining industry, afford better protection for ecological values, and reduce the complexity of the development approvals process.

This is an article from the 2006/07 Annual Report to the Legislature from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Citing This Article:
Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 2007. "Developing Priorities: The Challenge of Creating a Sustainable Planning System in Northern Ontario." Reconciling our Priorities, ECO Annual Report, 2006-07. Toronto, ON : Environmental Commissioner of Ontario. 64-67.