TORONTO (CP) -- A court ruling that grants a mining company limited exploration rights on aboriginal territory was called a partial victory Wednesday by the remote northern Ontario First Nations community whose land will be affected.
While the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug First Nation wasn't able to halt Platinex Inc.'s [TSXV:PTX] preliminary search for minerals in the Big Trout Lake area, it did win a seat at the table for any future development talks.
''I think the judge did what he could in terms of being fair to all parties,'' said John Cutfeet, a spokesman for the community also known as the KI First Nation, located some 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.
In a decision released Tuesday, Justice Patrick Smith ruled that there was inadequate evidence to prove that Platinex's plan would harm the land, environment or aboriginal tradition and culture.
The initial plan calls for the company to drill a maximum of 24 holes, each five centimetres in diameter, in a search for valuable minerals.
In the ruling, Smith said the aboriginal community has legitimate reasons to be concerned about future developments, and ordered that any further plans first go through a consultation process - noting that Platinex does not have ''carte blanche to proceed with this drilling.''
''Community members want to be treated as full partners, and not as second-class citizens. They want to have their fears and concerns heard and appreciated,'' Smith wrote.
''This court understands, respects and acknowledges this perspective.''
The company, community and province must consult on any future plans, and if talks go nowhere, the court will intervene, Smith added.
''In this way, KI will know that their concerns and fears are being heard and respected, with the hope that ultimately, development will be for the mutual benefit of all parties, and not just Platinex.''
James Trusler, president and CEO of Platinex, said he's happy with the decision and predicted the community will view development as a good thing, even though there is currently opposition to the idea.
''We're quite happy about this. I think we're going to be able to work with KI very well,'' Trusler said.
''(Similar projects) are really empowering the native community and it represents a huge change for the native communities.''
The community is not necessarily against development, said Cutfeet, but it must be given a much greater role in decision-making before plans are put in place.
''What Ontario has been proposing has been that we do the consultation while drilling takes place, and to me that would render the consultation process meaningless,'' he said.
There are concerns about how the community will react to the decision, given previous tensions when protesters erected a blockade at the company's work site. Company workers alleged they were confronted in a threatening manner and had to flee, although the community says it was a peaceful protest.
The community is also launching a constitutional challenge of Ontario's Mining Act, which allows companies to explore Crown land for minerals without having to purchase it.
Platinex was given clearance to survey land on the community's traditional territory without any consultations, which was a violation of their rights, Cutfeet said.
If the act is deemed unconstitutional, it could once again put Platinex's plans on hold.
''The issue of the constitutionality of the Mining Act is still critical and... until that's resolved, we're going to run into a series of problems with First Nations across Ontario,'' said Kate Kempton, a lawyer for the KI community.
David Ramsay, the province's minister responsible for aboriginal affairs, said it's important that mining exploration continues in northern Ontario, and the government hopes to convince aboriginal communities that they can benefit from development.
''We are in discussions with aboriginal people (about) how we can share benefits from resource development and I say to people, 'Let's continue to grow the size of the pie as we talk about how we're going to divide up the proceeds from the pie.' ''