McGuinty’s Controversial Far North Act Passes – Ian Ross

Established in 1980, Northern Ontario Business  provides Canadians and international investors with relevant, current and insightful editorial content and business news information about Ontario’s vibrant and resource-rich North. This article is from the November, 2010 issue.

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

Far North Act (Bill -191) Brings Out Many Angry Critics and Universal Condemnation Throughout the North

The passage of the Far North Act into law at Queen’s Park this fall wasn’t greeted with sustained applause from Northerners, but with anger and condemnation from all corners.

Natural Resources Minister Linda Jeffrey said the act represents a “new era of social prosperity, economic certainty and environmental protection” that places Ontario as a world leader in fighting global climate change.

However, it’s raised plenty of questions on how the McGuinty government plans to both protect and develop the Far North in setting aside a still-to-be-determined 225,000 square kilometres of boreal forest, or 21 per cent of Ontario’s land mass.

But the highly controversial Bill 191, which places the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) as the lead agency to conduct the land use planning in the James Bay region, has many critics asking if the ministry is up to this herculean task.

Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner doesn’t know if the MNR has the manpower and resources to manage the upcoming flood of traffic, people and business in this sensitive region. Gord Miller said “clearly” the MNR must be the lead agency in Far North because they have legislated care and control of all Crown land in Ontario under the Public Lands Act.

But he’s uncertain if the ministry has the resources to take on the task.

Miller has been a frequent critic of the province’s lack of regional planning in the Far North. He blames it on chronic underfunding of the MNR which hampers the ability of field staff and bureaucrats from doing this type of comprehensive region-wide planning.

“The problem is the MNR is not the presence in the North like they used to be,” said Miller, a Timmins native and former Ministry of Environment district manager.

“They’re not giving service to business and they’re not able to protect the interests of the public with respect to public lands.”

The announcement by Cliffs Natural Resources late last year to acquire three premium chromite deposits in the James Bay lowlands and develop a mine, mineral processing operations and railroad has caused a flurry of business activity throughout the region.

In his annual report, Miller said the government has been ineffective in managing development in the Far North by allowing mining service companies to illegally construct bush airstrips. He also pointed out two lines of mining claims, hundreds of kilometres long, were staked by one company for a future rail access leading south from the Ring of Fire deposits in the James Bay lowlands.

Miller said claim staking for a rail corridor “circumvents” the government’s plan to protect half the Far North and the boreal forest from development.

Using claims to “cut rail lines” across the boreal forest “nullifies any reasonable discussion” about how to plan the protection of Northern Ontario. He added it’s evident of a government that’s “out of sync” even with the pace of the early development stage. Moe Lavigne, vice-president of exploration for KWG Resources, one of the Ring of Fire mineral exploration companies, said his company has been taking a lot of blame for acting in their commercial interests.

His company and its subsidiary, Canada Chrome, staked the claims for the corridor and have commissioned an engineering study for an ore haul railway. A Minnesota engineering firm is preparing a rail feasibility study for the construction of a 350-kilometre-long railroad from McFaulds Lake, south to Exton. The preferred track bed would follow a series of gravel ridges through otherwise swampy terrain.

Lavigne said staking claims for roads is allowed under the Ontario Mining Act and is not without precedent. While previously working for North American Palladium, his company staked claims to access the Lac des Iles mine site from Highway 527 in northwestern Ontario.

“Mining operations can’t exist without transportation infrastructure” said Lavigne, whose company has spent $12 million for the rail engineering study that includes drilling into bedrock. “We may have discovered something, who knows? But mostly it’s going to be barren land with respect to mineral potential. “The ongoing narrative floating around within these environmental communities is this is the Wild, Wild West and mining is out of control. There is no mining going on in the Ring of Fire, and won’t be for years.”

Lavigne said if the Far North Act’s intent is to bring economic prosperity for First Nations people, there must be an in-depth assessment where the mineral deposits and timber values lie before Crown land is chopped up for protection.

While the Ontario government has a legal duty to consult with First Nations on matters of mineral exploration, Lavigne said they are downloading this responsibility onto the companies working in the field.

“The government is starting to realize that this downloading of consultation is going to create more chaos than anything.” In KWG Resources-Canada Chrome’s case, there were five affected First Nations with overlapping traditional lands that needed to be consulted for the chrome deposit and railroad. “There is an expectation that we consult with everybody.”

But there is a dynamic created, in that other mining companies also consult with the same First Nations, “and it’s got nothing to do with talking.”

“The First Nations are going to end up making deals with the companies that they’re most happy with. Individual First Nations are looking over their shoulders to see what deals other First Nations have got. This is the reality on the ground,” said Lavigne.

What’s forgotten, he added, is that mineral exploration is tightly regulated activity under the Mining Act and a host of other legislation including treaties. “Nowhere in the Mining Act does it say we’re supposed to solve Canada’s social problems.” Lavigne said if the province were ever to place a moratorium on staking in the Far North, mineral investment dollars “would disappear” for all of Ontario.

Harold Wilson, president of the Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce, said the Far North Act only serves to hinder business and investment by withdrawing half of the Far North’s land base from possible development and “holding the rest of the area subject to an MNR-led quagmire.”

Turning land use planning over to the MNR doesn’t sit well with Wilson, who supported First Nations chiefs in Toronto to have the act withdrawn. He was present in the Ontario Legislature when the Nishnawbe Aski Nation leadership walked out in protest during question period. They say the bill violates their treaty rights and promise “conflict” and “unrest” if the bill is passed into law.

“The most frustrating part is the government keeps saying 34 First Nations are doing land use planning, so why do we need the Far North Act?” said Wilson.

Wilson said the MNR has been tasked with managing growth in the region but doesn’t believe that they’re up to the challenge because funding isn’t trickling to the field offices to enforce the regulations that are already in place.

He likens the ministry to a municipal planning department with an ingrained “risk-adverse” culture rather than one of economic development. “Why would you run Northern Ontario the same way?”

Wilson said the legislation only increases the uncertainty of land tenure in Ontario which ultimately will make it more difficult for miners to raise funds for prospecting, exploration and development. “That’s money on the ground.”

“These reverberations will be immediate. I think they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.”