Ring of Fire NAN communitiues map out their mining future – 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. Ian Ross is the editor of Northern Ontario Business ianross@nob.on.ca and this article is from the March, 2011 issue.

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

With massive mine, transportation and processing developments coming to Ontario’s Far North within the next few years, First Nation leaders were gathering in February to map out a strategic direction built on consultation with mining companies. Cliffs Natural Resources has aggressive timelines to start construction for its chromite mine, processing and transportation project in the McFaulds Lake area of the James Bay region by early 2013, with mine production by 2015.

Les Louttit, deputy grand chief of the Thunder Bay-based Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), said “the timing is right” for First Nations to determine how best to gain the maximum benefits from resource revenues, future jobs and spinoff business opportunities from the mine development.

The political advocacy organization, representing 49 communities within northwestern Ontario and the James Bay Lowlands, gathered its membership in Thunder Bay in late February for an inaugural economic summit. They wanted to collectively identify what challenges are ahead, and what they want out of a future resource-based economy.

“We had experiences with the Victor diamond mine (in Attawapiskat) which, in afterthought, there was no engagement of First Nations on the James Bay coast until well into the late feasibility stage and actual mine construction.”

The First Nations are determined not to play catch-up again. “We want to get a head start and prepare our First Nation to discuss the issues regarding economic and resource development in their territory.”

What’s most important, is active participation in the evolving business opportunities stemming from mine development. In the past, said Louttit, there has been little to no consultation or adequate accommodation given to First Nations.

“The First Nations want to be involved from the get-go,” said Louttit, through business partnerships and equity positions in transportation, infrastructure and actual mine development projects.
Some of the early partnerships so far involve providing labour at remote exploration camps, but Louttit forecasts First Nations’ participation expanding into the skilled trades, management jobs and executive positions at aviation and trucking companies.

The summit’s agenda included a wide-variety of topics such as negotiating fair and equitable economic and resource development business deals, the environmental assessment process, resource benefit sharing, and the impacts of the global economy in NAN territory.

Louttit said it’s also the first time, NAN people will collectively gather to openly talk amongst themselves about topics that matter to them, instead of listening to outsiders to determine their future. “In the past, we’ve been listening to academic consultants and external advisors lecturing us at conferences. The ideas never went anywhere or got implemented.”

All the comments and recommendations gathered in Thunder Bay will be formed into a blueprint, Louttit called a regional economic resource development framework. “We want to provide some solutions and provide a long-term sustainable strategy to have healthy communities and employment.” Louttit said there are mixed feelings among NAN communities about the impact of the Ring of Fire developments. Instead of a railway, some prefer a year-round, allweather road to connect to the southern communities. But there are also fears about the social threats that come with greater access, including the increased flow of contraband to the North.

“There are going to be threats and opportunities. Those have to be balanced.” While Cliffs Natural Resources has pledged to “proactively engage” with and listen to First Nations communities’ impacted by their development, Louttit stressed those future consultations must be meaningful. “We’re not stakeholders. Those are our lands, our territories and our resources. Nobody’s going to come back there anymore like they did at the Victor site.”

In the last two years, Far North communities have blocked access to exploration camps in the Ring of Fire and ordered a stop to all activity until memorandums of understanding agreements are signed with the mining companies. “It’s going to be a challenge to negotiate the access right-of-ways through the territories,” said Louttit. “They’re (the communities) not going to hand it over, that’s why they’re protesting. We prefer negotiation as opposed to confrontation.”