Atlantic Gold spat with St. Mary’s council turned ugly, document reveals

Company claims most residents support Cochrane Hill mine

By By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
March 11 2020

SHERBROOKE – Despite recent assurances that it “works with communities” where it operates, Atlantic Gold seriously considered imposing “legal remedies” on St. Mary’s Municipal Council only last year, a letter released through the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPOP) shows.

In an Op-Ed published by The Guysborough Journal on March 4, Maryse Belanger, President Americas of St Barbara – Atlantic Gold’s Australian-based parent company – wrote, “we respect the communities and the environment where we work and live…while creating sustainable economic opportunity…we work with the government and communities.”

But in a letter dated February 14, 2019 – recently made public through a FOIPOP request and addressed to Derek Mombourquette, Chuck Porter and Lloyd Hines (Nova Scotia Ministers of Energy and Mines, Municipal Affairs and Housing, and Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal, respectively) – a disappointed Belanger, frustrated with local authorities, wrote, “while we converse with your offices, we are exploring legal remedies” to the St. Mary’s council decision.

The then-COO of Atlantic Gold elaborated, “On the evening of February 11th, the St. Mary’s CAO (Marvin MacDonald) informed Atlantic Gold that at the request of Council, we were being asked not to attend the ‘public meetings’. Atlantic Gold wrote and called the CAO on February 12th to ask them to reconsider this request and informed them that we are of the opinion that this action violated the Municipal Government Act. In response, we were again told that we would not be allowed to attend. For Atlantic Gold, this is a serious matter.”

She urged the Department of Municipal Affairs to send “an official communication…to the St. Mary’s Council and CAO to inform them that their consultation sessions of February 12 and 16 were in violation of the Municipal Government Act” and “re-enforce to the St. Mary’s Council that they have no legal or legislative authority over this project and that, given their one-sided approach to public consultation, none of their actions or decisions will be recognized as part of the provincial government’s decision-making process as it relates to the approval of the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine.”

The following May, Earltown resident John Perkins, a member of Sustainable Northern Nova Scotia, was forcibly removed from an Atlantic Gold public information session in Sherbrooke after asking questions that appeared critical of the company’s intentions for the proposed Cochrane Hill project. Perkins later announced he had filed a lawsuit against Atlantic Gold, its officers at the meeting, the arresting RCMP constable, and the Attorney General of Canada, alleging injury, loss and damage.

In the recent Journal Op-Ed, Belanger wrote, “Seventy-six per cent of residents provincially and 80 per cent of residents living close to the proposed project at Cochrane Hill support the mining industry and the proposed Cochrane Hill project moving forward. People support the Cochrane Hill Gold Mine for the potential creation of local jobs, contributions to the local economy, and the positive impact mining companies have in contributing to the communities around their operations.”

The issue between Atlantic Gold and St. Mary’s Council was raised publicly for the first time last month when Halifax lawyer Tina Northrup posted to her blog that she had just received a copy of Belanger’s February 2019 letter “made public through a FOIPOP application” from “community members who are concerned about new mining projects that Atlantic Gold has proposed to develop in Nova Scotia.”

In her post, Northrup doubted that Atlantic Gold had much legal standing for its complaints. “Municipalities do have the power to contribute to ecological governance in Nova Scotia,” she wrote. “Their powers are not unlimited, true, but…for Canadians who are not Indigenous persons living on reserve, municipal governments…are uniquely positioned to hear their constituents’ concerns and respond to them or amplify them so that they will be heard by those with higher authority. Legislative provisions like section 106 of the Environment Act give municipalities special roles to play in ensuring Nova Scotians have access to clean, safe drinking water.”

Asked this week whether Atlantic Gold still believes St. Mary’s Council’s action violated the Municipal Government Act last year, Communications Manager Dustin O’Leary wrote in an email, “We believe the letter sent to the Council speaks for itself. It should be noted that since February 2019, the Council completed an Economic Impact Assessment of the proposed Cochrane Hill Gold Mine showing the mine’s operations would increase overall municipal taxes collected by 12.5 per cent immediately upon opening. It also showed that hundreds of jobs would be available to residents of the community with an average salary of over $84,000 per year.”

Asked whether the company has received a reply from the provincial government to Belanger’s specific requests, O’Leary wrote, “Atlantic Gold is focused on creating a project that provides opportunity and prosperity to residents of the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s and all those living on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore. Our relationship with the Council and staff remains strong and is only bolstered by strong economic impact and polling data that has recently been received. We look forward to the Council’s guidance and perspectives as our project moves forward in the Federal and Provincial approvals process.”

Asked whether the company has, is, or will be exploring “legal remedies” against St. Mary’s District Council, O’Leary wrote, “Atlantic Gold’s focus is on completing studies to improve the design of the proposed Cochrane Hill Gold Mine with the goal of protecting the local environment and creating greater economic opportunity in the St. Mary’s region. During the life of the proposed Cochrane Hill project, over $550 million in economic activity will be generated and we are working with the local Council and stakeholders to ensure the community maximizes their ability to capitalize on this opportunity.

O’Leary also provided the following formal statement from Atlantic Gold regarding its relationship with St. Mary’s Council: “We respect the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s Council. Municipal staff have an important role to play in building a better community. We look forward to maintaining our ongoing positive dialogue with the Council as we progress through the approvals process with the federal and provincial governments. We will all work together to grow the local economy, increase government revenues and preserve our shared environment.”

St. Mary’s District CAO Marvin MacDonald said Atlantic Gold has not contacted him regarding remedies, legal or otherwise, adding, “We’re not lawyers, but we were acting within the authority of the Municipal Government Act. That was our opinion when we made the decision last year. We haven’t looked back.”