Ring of Fire: A Chance to Remake, or Ruin, the North – by Tanya Talaga [Toronto Star-March 27, 2010]

Tanya Talaga is the Queen’s Park (Ontario Provincial Government) reporter for the Toronto Star, which has the largest circulation in Canada. The paper has an enormous impact on Canada’s federal and provincial politics as well as shaping public opinion. This article was originally published on Saturday, March 27, 2010 on the front page of the Insight section.

For an extensive list of articles on this mineral discovery, please go to: Ontario’s Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery

A massive ore deposit has prospectors drooling, native groups worried about a raw deal and greens warning of an ecological disaster. With $30 billion at stake, the government is struggling to strike the right balance

MARTEN FALLS FIRST NATION, ONT.–Children sprint into the school gym to feast on the grapes, apples and oranges laid out on long tables – the first fresh fruit they’ve seen in months.

The fruit, all 90 kilos of it, is a gift to the 300 people living in this impoverished, fly-in-only reserve from Northern Development Minister Michael Gravelle.

He’s flown to Marten Falls, where the water is not clean enough to drink, on a diplomatic mission to soothe tensions among the Indians, government and mining companies over the proposed development of the Ring of Fire.

The Ring is a massive, 5,120-square-kilometre area of pristine wilderness that happens to be on Marten Falls’ traditional land and is said to hold one of the richest ore deposits in the world.

The buzz around the potential jackpot has prospectors jockeying for position as everyone lines up to stake their claim in this modern-day gold rush.

Premier Dalton McGuinty is eyeing the haul as a way to lift Ontario’s lagging economy and historic $21.3-billion deficit. In fact, this week’s budget signalled that Queen’s Park will appoint a Ring of Fire co-ordinator.

Mining giants are so ecstatic over initial exploration results that they have staked out nearly 31,000 claims in the past seven or so years.

First Nations see development as their gateway to real jobs and money, but they have serious qualms about whether they’ll get the benefits they desire.
And environmentalists fear ecological disaster in Ontario’s remote north.

Gravelle’s task is daunting – to bring all the competing interests to the negotiation table.

His first stop last week was the struggling Marten Falls community, 500 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, where nearly everyone is unemployed.

There, he met with Chief Elijah Moonias, to exchange gifts and partake in a moose stew feast before hopping into a chartered Cessna for a trip 150 kilometres north to the equally impoverished Webequie First Nation, a reserve of 700 people, to talk to Chief Cornelius Wabasse. About 80 per cent of families in Webequie subsist on welfare, and there was a problem with teen suicides a few years ago.

If Gravelle fails to convince Moonias and Wabasse to let planes land on the airstrips so the mining companies can move in, the entire scheme falls apart. For two months this winter, the angry chiefs blockaded the icy runways on their traditional lands.

Moonias is not anti-development; he just wants to make sure Marten Falls benefits from the development.

Mining the vast wetlands sprinkled with rivers, lakes and at-risk wildlife could bring thousands of jobs and opportunities to a place that has none.

If speculators are correct, there is enough chromite, a rarely found mineral used to make stainless steel, to mine steadily for the next 100 years.

The spin-offs to digging are potentially enormous.

A railway nearly 350 kilometres long would be constructed from the Ring to Nakina in the south and would join the existing rail line. A processing plant would be needed.

Supporting businesses would be created; proper airports and roads built.

Thunder Bay would boom like Sudbury did when nickel was discovered.

There could be jobs for First Nations people for generations to come.

After talking for an hour, Moonias and Gravelle stand in front of the assembled community members waiting to begin the moose feast.

They have an agreement.

The blockade will end for six months. In exchange, Moonias and Wabasse will get to sit down with the government to negotiate a set of demands.

“There have been some real lessons learned here,” Gravelle says. “There is a great need to develop a relationship of trust. I’m hopeful we can move from this place to even better discussions.”

But if at the end of six months the Indians fail to get what they want – ownership of a revamped airport, environmental-impact studies, an improved memorandum of understanding with the government, winter road extensions, and a guarantee of training and jobs – the blockade goes back up.

“I told the minister,” Moonias says quietly, “all of us have to put better on the table.”

The two men shake hands and exchange presents.