OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's Supreme Court -- in a ruling that could help clarify the complex process needed to gain a mining permit -- said on Friday a proposed vanadium mine on land owned by an aboriginal group must have a full environmental assessment before development proceeds.
The ruling is important because it makes clear that in this case -- and probably others -- that modern Canadian laws apply to treaties between native Indian groups and the federal government, no matter when the treaties were signed.
Separately, the federal government has already promised to look at ways to streamline the complicated method of granting permits for mines, which companies complain can last for many years.
When mining projects are proposed for aboriginal-owned lands, the process of gaining federal and provincial approvals can be even longer.
The top court was ruling on a proposal to develop a mine in northern Quebec on land governed by a 1975 land claims agreement between Canada and the Cree Indians. The land claims deal -- which covers a tract of about 1 million square kilometers -- was the first of 15 such treaties the government signed with aboriginal groups in Canada.
The vanadium project -- first proposed in 1999 -- would have caused major damage to fish habitats and therefore required a full assessment by federal authorities.
The terms of the 1975 treaty said that if a federal environmental assessment of a project were ever needed, it would be done according to a special process giving the Cree a chance to have their say.
But the court, in a split 5-4 ruling, said the assessment should instead be done under the terms of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEEA), which did not come into existence until 1982.
The court said the 1975 land claims agreement clearly implied compliance with laws that might be imposed in future as well as ones that existed at the time the treaty was signed.
"The vanadium mine cannot lawfully proceed without a fisheries permit, The proponent is unable to obtain ... (a) permit without compliance with the CEEA," ruled Justice Ian Binnie, writing for the majority.
The land claims treaties with native groups cover large tracts of territory. Depending on the language used in each treaty, proposed mining projects on those tracts would require CEEA assessments.
The vanadium mine was initially proposed by Lac Dore Mining Inc, which sold its stake to a private mining firm in 2008.
The Cree had complained that the CEEA would not allow them enough of a say in the assessment process. The court disagreed, saying there were enough safeguards in place.
(The case is Attorney General of Quebec v Grand Chief Dr. Ted Moses, Grand Council of the Cerees (Eeyou Istchee), Attorney General of Canada and others, No. 32693)
Reporting by David Ljunggren; editing by Peter Galloway