First nations communities in the Northwest Territories say the federal government has betrayed their trust by opening up protected lands to mining.
The Edehzhie National Wildlife area, which is also known as the Horn Plateau, had been off limits to development for the past eight years. On Nov. 1, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs extended the protection to cover surface activities like logging but specifically excluded underground activities such as mineral exploration and mining.
The 14,250-square-kilometre Edehzhie, a plateau west of Great Slave Lake, features prominently in Dené legends and is home to caribou and moose. It is also the source for water in three major drainage basins.
"In our view, the federal government's unilateral decision to open Edehzie to mining interests represents a very large betrayal of trust," said Grand Chief Samuel Gargan, who held a news conference Wednesday to highlight his community's concerns.
Canada has cynically used the federal Protected Areas Strategy to subsidize the mining industry, Chief Gargan said. The PAS is a joint program in which aboriginal groups and the government work co-operatively to identify ecologically sensitive areas.
The proposed Edehzhie National Wildlife Area was waiting for its final designation as a protected area when the government paid for a mineral assessment and then opened it up to mineral exploration.
The Dehcho First Nation has asked for a judicial review of the decision.
"If you had to pick one area in the Dehcho territory that all of the communities agree needs to be protected, this is it," Chris Reid, the lawyer for the aboriginal group, said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
"They have been working on the 1990s to protect it and there was never any hint until this happened that the federal government was considering opening up the whole area to mining," Mr. Reid said.
Environment groups including the Canadian Boreal Initiative and World Wildlife Fund Canada also oppose the government's decision.
"To not listen to the people of the North and to just arbitrarily make a unilateral decision to open this protected area just shows that the Conservatives are not standing up for northerners," Dennis Bevington, the New Democrat MP for the Western Arctic said in a release.
When asked about its decision, the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs said it would not comment because the first-nations request for judicial review is before the courts.