THUNDER BAY – MINING –A Judge in Quebec ruled that a Cdn$900 million lawsuit brought forward by two Canadian aboriginal communities against Rio Tinto’s Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC), may move forward through the courts.
The First Nations claim the Rio Tinto has violated their rights for nearly sixty years by operating without their permission on their traditional territories.
The Innu communities of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam and Matimekush-Lac John asked the court last March for an injunction against IOC’s unit in Quebec and Labrador to stop all mining. The groups claim the miner has violated their rights for nearly 60 years by operating without their permission.
The Innu First Nations of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam and Matimekush-Lac John, whose traditional territory (Nitassinan) covers a large part of North-eastern Quebec and Labrador, celebrated on September 19, 2014 an important legal victory in their 900 million dollar lawsuit targeting the Iron Ore Company of Canada (IOC), whose majority shareholder is Rio Tinto (see press release of March 20, 2013 for more information on the suit). IOC had tried to have the case dismissed by attempting to convince the Court that the Innu did not have the right to sue IOC and had to rather sue the government. On September 19, 2014, the Honourable Justice Marc-André Blanchard of the Superior Court of Montreal rejected IOC’s motion to dismiss.
Without a doubt, governments played a role in authorizing IOC’s projects despite the lack of consent of the Innu of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam and Matimekush-Lac John, but IOC’s projects are not some form of public undertaking. It was IOC, and now Rio Tinto, therefore private investors, who made the decision, without any consideration for the two Innu peoples living on the land since time immemorial, to build and operate a mining megaproject totalling thirty or so gigantic mining pits, a railway 578 km in length and what ended up being toxic port facilities which still contaminate today an area greater than 30 football fields.
“It was not the government that carried out racial discrimination against Innu employees. It was not the government that expelled our women, children and elders from their homeland to make way for IOC’s mines. And it was not the government that amassed billions and billions of dollars in profits by ripping apart and contaminating our lands in the course of extracting our mineral wealth. It was IOC / Rio Tinto. It is therefore up to IOC / Rio Tinto to make amends for its acts,” declared the Chief of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam, Mike McKenzie.
The judgment issued on September 19, 2014 was not only a great legal victory for the two Innu peoples of Uashat Mak Mani-Utenam and Matimekush-Lac John but the judgment will also serve as a precedent for other First Nations seeking to force companies to respect their rights. The judgment confirms that proponents like IOC / Rio Tinto cannot ignore the rights of First Nations and then simply hide behind government.
The victory in Court will ensure the continuation of the Innu lawsuit against IOC / Rio Tinto and will only add to the campaign which the Innu are embarking on to put an end to the colonial attitude with which IOC / Rio Tinto treats, still today, the two peoples. The Innu will also seek to contest in Court the new mine, called “Wabush 3”, which IOC seeks to build at Labrador City should IOC / Rio Tinto persist in violating the constitutional rights of the Innu.
“We are not opposed to development and we are not seeking to block regional economic development. But the era when companies could come and develop our lands without also treating us as owners of the land is over. It is entirely legitimate for us to use the means at our disposal to make IOC / Rio Tinto respect our rights, particularly in the case of this company which was the first to dispossess the Innu of their lands. After more than 60 years of having our rights violated, it is about time that IOC / Rio Tinto pays its rent,” added the Chief of Matimekush-Lac John, Réal McKenzie.