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Avalon 'blindsided' by Yellowknives
Nechalacho project proponent surprised by First Nation's opposition to proposed rare earth mine at public hearing

Thandiwe Vela
Northern News Services
Published Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Yellowknives Dene First Nation opposition to Avalon Rare Metals Inc.'s proposed mine at Thor Lake "blindsided" the proponent at the public hearing for the high-profile rare earth project last week.

NNSL photo/graphic

Yellowknives Dene First Nation representatives listen to elder Isidore Tsetta, left, speak at a public hearing for Avalon Rare Metals Inc.'s Thor Lake rare earth element project on Feb. 19 at the Tree of Peace Friendship Centre. At the table beside Tsetta are Alfred Baillargeon, Modesta Sangris, Roy Erasmus, Chief Edwin Sangris, Todd Slack, Shannon Gault and Randy Freeman. - Thandiwe Vela/NNSL photo

Chief Edward Sangris told the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board that the chiefs and council had met and decided to oppose the Nechalacho project, citing a deteriorating relationship with Avalon.

The company's president and CEO, Don Bubar, said he felt blindsided by the revelations on second day of the hearing in Yellowknife.

"It's not surprising that there would be concerns expressed. That's the purpose of the hearing, for the public to express concerns about the socio-environmental impacts generally, and make sure that there's a net benefit to the people of the Northwest Territories if this project goes ahead. So to have concerns expressed is entirely fair and appropriate. But to come out and vehemently oppose all of a sudden when we've been discussing a partnership for several years, that took me by surprise," Bubar said. "I felt blindsided by this."

The Yellowknives announced last week it feels the potential environmental impacts resulting from the project far exceed the perceived benefits and that the Yellowknives are not being treated as the most impacted community.

Avalon has yet to conclude an Impact Benefits Agreement with the Yellowknives, after striking an agreement with the Deninu Ku'e First Nation last summer, which gave part ownership of the mining project to the Fort Resolution First Nation.

Negotiation teams were put together by both sides to work toward an accommodation agreement, Bubar said, and he too is frustrated that the parties have not made progress.

"I think we just need to change some of the faces at the table," Bubar suggested.

The relationship between the company and the First Nation started out well, with the Yellowknives even lending the name for the project, Nechalacho, which is the Dene name for the Thor Lake area, in September 2009.

While Bubar said the relationships generally at a leadership level between himself, the chiefs and other community leaders remains good, the Yellowknives said the relationship has gone downhill since Avalon first announced its plans for the project, explaining why it pulled its support for the project at the review board hearing.

"The hearings, the message that was delivered there, I received that loud and clear. That there's some unhappiness about the pace of moving things forward in our relationship. So I hear that and I'm going to respond and see that we can address the concerns that were raised there and get the negotiations moving forward because my expectation hasn't changed from what it was in September 2009 when we did the naming ceremony," Bubar said. "In my mind that created that partnership and it's just a matter now of kind of completing the negotiation process to crystallize that into a formal agreement. Sometimes these things go smooth and sometimes they don't."

Overall, the company thought that the public hearing went well, taking into account that the last day of proceedings was last Friday in Fort Resolution.

Despite environmental worries, the majority of Fort Resolution residents at the hearing want the economic benefits from the project's planned hydrometallurgical plant at Pine Point, which would be fed with ore barged across Great Slave Lake.

The review board will now prepare a report from the public hearing in Yellowknife and Fort Resolution for the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.

Both the Yellowknives and the Lutsel K'e Dene First Nation have called for measures that require signed accommodation agreements prior to licensing the Thor Lake project.

-- with files from Paul Bickford

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