09/19/2013 03:46 EDT | Updated 11/19/2013 05:12 EST

Top court agrees to hear case over clear-cutting on traditional aboriginal lands

OTTAWA - The Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear a long-running dispute over clear cutting on a First Nation's traditional territory in northwestern Ontario.

The Grassy Narrows First Nation has challenged Ontario's right to permit industrial logging on its traditional lands, saying it infringed on their hunting and trapping rights under a treaty they signed in 1873.

It turned to Canada's highest court after the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled earlier this year that the province doesn't need the federal government's approval to "take up" the lands — a decision that overturned a lower court ruling.

Observers said the lower court ruling put the validity of forestry and mining licences in jeopardy, and at least one mining company had hailed March's appeal court decision as a positive one for them.

The northwestern Ontario First Nation has spent nearly 15 years in court fighting the province's decision to issue a licence for clearcut operations in parts of the Keewatin portion of Treaty 3 territory.

Resolute Forest Products Canada Inc. (TSX:RFP) — then known as Abitibi-Consolidated Inc. — pulled out of the Whiskey Jack Forest north of Kenora in 2008 amid the dispute.

But Ontario continues to plan for clearcut logging throughout Grassy Narrows Territory and is seeking input on a new 10-year forest management plan that includes dozens of large clearcuts, Chief Simon Fobister said Thursday in a release.

The First Nation says scientific studies indicate that clearcut logging in boreal watersheds raises mercury levels in fish above the Health Canada limit for safe human consumption.

It adds recent clearcut logging in Grassy Narrows territory has exacerbated the impact of mercury poisoning that began when a paper mill upstream in Dryden dumped mercury between 1962 and 1970.

"Our community has suffered for too long from the impacts of industry imposed on our people," said Joseph Fobister, one of the Grassy Narrows trappers who initiated the legal action.

"We cannot allow industry to further damage our way of life and our health by poisoning our water and destroying the forests that we depend on," he said.

Joseph Fobister called the decision by the Supreme Court to hear the case "further proof that our concerns are valid and important."

"It is sad that Ontario continues to ignore us when we tell them that clearcut logging hurts our people," he said.

A spokeswoman for the province's Ministry of Natural Resources said she could not comment directly on the case while it is before the courts.

"We remain committed to respecting treaty rights, while providing a stable environment for the resource development sector in Ontario," Jolanta Kowalski said Thursday.

As usual, the Supreme Court did not give reasons for granting leave to appeal.