Rafting down the Albany River to the Ring of Fire – by Tanya Talaga (Toronto Star – June 12, 2011)

Tanya Talaga is the Queen’s Park reporter with 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.

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


There is a Cree legend about the insatiable appetite of big brother. Always famished, big brother demands his little brother work harder to bring him more timber, gold and fuel so he can feed his hungry belly.

Ed Metatawabin tells this story from a wooden raft as it slowly makes its way through the pummeling rain down the 1,000-kilometre-long Albany River in Ontario’s Far North.

Directly above the Albany lies the Ring of Fire — more than 5,000 square kilometres of pristine wilderness that is believed to contain a $30 billion deposit of chromite, the ore used to make stainless steel. Prospectors also say a treasure trove of platinum and diamonds lies underneath.

But the pursuit of these riches means little brother must blast, bulldoze and bigfoot through the Albany watershed, the surrounding boreal forest and the swampy peatland of the Hudson Bay lowlands.

The race to develop the ring is already furiously underway. International mining companies have staked more than 9,000 claims covering 480,000 hectares. All-weather roads, bridges and a railway line are being planned to transport the precious ore south.

A coalition of environmental groups is calling on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government to create a federal joint review panel — a body of experts that would closely monitor the mining — to ensure development adheres to environmental standards.

Metatawabin, dressed in hip waders and warm rain gear, his black and grey striped ponytail hanging down his back, stands on the bow of his 16-by-63-foot raft and surveys the river his people have lived off of for nearly 10,000 years.

“Cruel big brother,” Metatawabin says. “He eats and he eats and he eats.”

Will little brother finally stand up and say enough? Will he refuse to do big brother’s bidding?

Metatawabin is unsure. He worries little brother has lost his way.

The boreal forest stretches from the Manitoba border to James Bay and Quebec. The monstrously tall, old-growth cedar and spruce trees found here are referred to as the “lungs of the earth” for their ability to trap carbon gas emissions.

The mighty Albany River system cuts like a ribbon through the forest, separating the resource-rich north from the ever-growing south. The Albany begins in the west at Cat Lake, then meanders through the Hudson’s Bay Lowlands before emptying into James Bay.

There are no permanent roads or towns here. Cell phones don’t work. The only way in or out is by canoe, small boat or bush plane. It is one of the world’s last intact and undisturbed forests.

And in the middle is the Ring of Fire.

Its chromite deposit is believed to be the biggest in North America — so big that boosters say it could be mined for a century.

In the year since Premier Dalton McGuinty made the Ring the touchstone of his throne speech, the Liberals have established a co-ordinator, Christine Kaszycki, to guide the players — prospectors, international mining firms, federal and provincial governments, northern mayors and First Nations — competing in an area of Ontario that now feels like the Wild West. Everybody wants a piece of the Ring.

It’s now up to the federal and provincial governments to rule on the development proposals.

Last year, the Liberals introduced controversial Bill 191, the Far North Act, which promises to include First Nations communities in land use plans and sets aside 225,000 square kilometres of the North from development. It’s expected the Ring of Fire will not be part of that.

Still, Progressive Conservative Leader Tim Hudak says if his party is elected on Oct. 6, he’d scrap the act. “I just have a very different view than Dalton McGuinty, who wants to turn Northern Ontario into one giant museum. He wants to freeze it in time. Our focus would be on job creation and investment instead.”

New Democratic Leader Andrea Horwath says First Nations leaders don’t like the act. “I’m concerned with disruptions we’ll see because First Nations weren’t part of the process.”

All things considered , development is moving at lightning speed.

Last month, Harper appointed Tony Clement minister for the federal economic initiative for Northern Ontario.

Three mining giants have put forward project plans that now must be assessed environmentally by both Ontario and Ottawa officials. They range hugely, from open pit to underground mining, to moving the ore north versus south, to adding processing plants, airstrips and hydroelectric dams.

How to develop this wet, remote environment is a “key consideration,” says Kaszycki. “We have three companies, three different transportation proposals; we need some co-ordination in approach.”

As for the nearly two dozen First Nations communities, the only groups living here in the Far North, Kaszycki says the Ontario government continues to work with them.

Already there has been controversy.

Marten Falls First Nations, located almost on top of the Ring, has blockaded their airstrips, preventing mining companies from landing.

A further example of the possible strife to come can be seen in a neighbouring resource-rich area known as the “arc of fire.”

There, Constance Lake First Nation is currently in mediation with Zenyatta Ventures Ltd. following a court battle.

About 800 people live in Constance Lake, 300 kilometres west of Timmins along Hwy 11. Many live off the land, hunting and fishing. However, the water is not clean enough to drink and bottled water must be brought into the reserve.

Chief Arthur Moore says while Zenyatta has met with his community, they went ahead and began to drill on traditional lands without their consent.

“We are concerned about the exploration program, transferring oil drums by helicopter. Our trappers tell the leadership here that they’ve spotted empty drums near the river shores.”

Moore says Constance Lake is not anti-development — in fact, they want a part of the action in order to provide jobs, better buildings and clean water for its residents.

“We need to build our infrastructure and communities better. One way of doing it is if companies come in to our traditional territories, they should help improve them.”

For the second consecutive year, Metatawabin has taken a small group of teens from Fort Albany First Nation on a rafting trip up the Albany to teach them about their history.

Metatawabin belongs to the Albany River Coalition. He wants this area completely shielded from development.

“This needs to be protected for the young people. You know what? We all eat three times a day. Our fridges are full, so are our freezers. Why do we need more? I say slow down. We haven’t had the need to get the diamonds to survive.”

Metatawabin and Fort Albany members built the raft with 28 massive logs joined together by cables. It has a kitchen and bunk beds.

There are 22 First Nations gravesites along the rocky shores of the river. The “forks,” where the Albany meets the Kenogami River, is a historic meeting place for all the northern First Nations.

Fur traders have used this route to move from the original Hudson’s Bay trading post at Fort Albany into the hinterland for more than 400 years.

Identical twins Cory and Cody Reuben, 17, wrote essays to win a coveted spot on the river raft. The boys both hail from the isolated Fort Albany First Nation, a fly-in-only community of about 900 people living 450 kilometres north of Timmins on the west coast of James Bay.

The boys are gentle giants, high school basketball players who stand 6-foot-2. Remarkably, they have never been down the Albany or camped in the bush.

One evening Cody learned how to fillet fish. By the end of the night, he had cleaned and deboned eight of them.

The Albany is full of pike, pickerel and beavers. Goose and cranes fly overhead. Bears can occasionally be seen from the shore, and they can be awfully friendly at night when the boat docks. Twelve-gauge shotguns are kept at the door of the raft, just in case.

For the rest of this article, please go to the Toronto Star website: http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1006854–rafting-down-the-albany-river-to-the-ring-of-fire?bn=1