Indigenous leaders welcome diamond mine news, but still have unaddressed concerns

An aerial view of the Star Diamond Project located east of Prince Albert in Fort à la Corne Forest. The photo is from October 2019. -- Star Diamond Corporation/Submitted

Leaders from James Smith First Nations welcomed news that mining giant Rio Tinto plans to acquire a 60 per cent share in a proposed diamond mine east of Prince Albert, however they’re still worried Indigenous concerns aren’t being addressed.

Saskatoon-based Star Diamond Corp. announced the decision on Nov. 15, and while James Smith leaders said that’s good news for future development, it won’t mean anything if their concerns aren’t met.

“At this stage, we have no guarantees, even with the change in controlling interest, that this mine is in our best people’s best interests,” James Smith Cree Nation Chief Wally Burns said in a media release. “We have a sacred duty to protect the Treaties and lands our ancestors bequeathed us and we don’t have that yet.”

“We’re not opposed to development,” Burns added. “But, we will not be satisfied with beads and trinkets.”

James Smith band member and spokesperson Winston McLean said they remain optimistic the two groups can reach an agreement since Rio Tinto has “a very mature, very enlightened approach” to the talks.

“We view the relationship with Rio Tinto as very positive,” McLean said during an interview on Monday. “We’re optimistic that something can be worked out with them, and also with the provincial government. They still have a role to play in this process as well.”

As of last February, Rio Tinto had drilled 10 holes at the project site in Fort à la Corne Forest, with plans to drill 20 more at another site located further south. During an open house in Prince Albert, company representatives were quick to point out the mine was a long ways away from being open.

McLean said that lengthy time line works in their favour, and makes it more likely a deal will actually get done.

“They still have a long ways to go, which means we still have a lot of time to make sure our interests are protected during the exploration phase as well,” he explained.

McLean declined to get into specifics when asked what a future agreement would involve. However, he did say local First Nations have benefitted from Fort à la Corne Forest for centuries. They want to ensure that continues with any new developments.

“We just want to make sure our interests in the forest are protected and advanced,” he said. “We’ve been using that forest for countless generations. We have some spiritual and cultural interests in that forest. A lot of hunting, fishing and trapping still takes place for our people in that area.”

McLean added that there are no planned meetings between James Smith leaders and Rio Tinto, however they do plan to reach out to the provincial government in the near future.

The proposed Star-Orion Diamond Project covers 9,200 hectares in Fort à la Corne Forest. Star Diamond Corporation expects the mine to last for 38 years, and employ around 700 people once it is operational.

This isn’t the first time James Smith First Nations leaders have expressed concerns about the project. They also objected to an environmental assessment completed by the provincial government in 2018. At the time, Chief Wally Burns said it failed to meaningfully address the community’s environmental and cultural concerns.

“The way things stand, everyone else will get the benefits of a mine while we are left with all the consequences,” Burns said.

Environment Minister Dustin Duncan agued that the provincial government had fulfilled its duty to consult with First Nations by forming a working group that met with James Smith leaders. He also said any harmful environmental effects could be eliminated or minimized.

“It’s not going to satisfy everybody,” Duncan said at the time. “We certainly understand that. Certainly from the proponent’s side, they would have liked this process to have moved quicker, and certainly from some communities, they likely feel like the accommodations don’t go far enough, or that there was enough consultation.”