Far North Act – David Pearson (Northern Ontario Business – September, 2011)

David Pearson is a professor of earth sciences and science communication at Laurentian University. He can be reached at dpearson@laurentian.ca

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.

For the web’s largest database of articles on the Ring of Fire mining camp, please go to: Ontario’s Ring of Fire Mineral Discovery

Hold it Mr. Hudak, hold it, let’s talk about this: “A Tim Hudak government will repeal Bill 191, the Far North Act, which effectively turns the North into a museum by banning development and killing potential jobs.” And while we’re on the subject we should add a comment that appeared in the last edition of this paper: the “First Nations hate Bill 191.”

Central to the Far North Act (Bill 191) are 31 isolated First Nation communities scattered across almost exactly half of Ontario’s land area reaching up to the coast of Hudson Bay. With a total population of just 24,000, of whom half are 16 or under, many families rely on fish, geese, and caribou they catch and hunt for themselves in their communities’
traditional territory. Without those communities there would not be a Far North Act.

The Act sets up a framework for communities to work with the Ontario government in developing land-use plans for their traditional territories based on the values, culture, and aspirations of the members of each community. The Act was also designed to enable communities to benefit from resource development through arrangements and on terms that are acceptable to the community and not simply driven by first-come, first-served external pressures.

It may be irksome for at least one mining company executive in such discussions who was quoted as saying “they think they own the land,” but it is a point of view based on the use that Far North First Nations people make of the land in their traditional territories, their Aboriginal rights in those territories and their culture, history and way of life. It is a point of view that resource developers would do well to respect.

Land-use plans will normally include areas designated for development such as mining as well as areas the community wishes to see protected for one reason or another and in one way or another. The planning partnership with the government provides an opportunity for the inclusion of Western science as well as objectives related to that science such as the protection of water quality in rivers and drinking water sources, or the protection of endangered species. Geological information from the Ontario Geological Survey’s intensive mapping program in the Far North and its broad scale
exploration opportunity maps can also be integrated and used in designating potential mineralized regions.

Plans of this kind are invaluable in themselves as products as well as for the process used to produce them. Documents and maps are essential tools for communities in their dialogue with the mineral industry and the awareness raised by the process is preparation for that dialogue. Without a community based land-use plan, development projects, such as mining, will normally be delayed until there is. Although this process has obviously been overtaken by the unprecedented events in the Ring of Fire area, it is very appropriate for the remaining 90 per cent of the Far North. It should not be in any way curtailed. If anything, it should be provided with more resources and accelerated.

Land-use plans are also a base on which to build information provided by science both locally and regionally. For example, the average ice cover season on Hudson Bay is decreasing by about a day each year – the Far North of Ontario is slowly losing its refrigerator. Warming of the planet is being reinforced by regional warming because of the loss of ice. Plausible projections of the increase in winter temperatures in the next 40 years are close to estimates of the rise since the end of the Ice Age 9,000 years ago.

Elders are already speaking of changes in the migration patterns of geese and the difficulty of winter travel among many other noticeable effects. It is timely for communities to consider the potential impacts of changing weather patterns such as more frequent flooding and include them in land-use planning. Development projects should consider these impending impacts as well.

The word ‘protection’ can be interpreted in many different ways, but the idea that 50 per cent of the landscape being the same in 50 years as it is today means that the Far North will become a ‘museum’ is mistaken. The isolation and landscape alone ensure that vast areas will remain unchanged except for the impacts of a changing climate. Very much of the flat land around Hudson Bay is wet muskeg – the third largest wetland in the world behind those of Siberia.

It is the terrain in which some of the ground De Beers Canada surveyed from the air and staked years ago will eventually become diamond mines. Although much still needs to be learned about the impact of diamond mines on the muskeg, there is every reason to believe that diamond mining will continue to be as successful as it is near Attawapiskat.

It has been argued by prospectors that the most important part of protection in the Far North has to do with how the land is left after its mineral potential has been assessed in partnership with communities. The best partnerships will include the training and employment of First Nation people in their traditional territory. Protection in this case means responsible, environmentally considerate prospecting and exploration that is monitored and subject to penalties and sanctions. There is clearly opportunity for dialogue about that approach.

When development occurs, protection includes strategically aligning transportation and transmission corridors so as to minimize interference with wildlife. Minimal interference with the migration paths of caribou herds is one obvious example with implications for subsistence hunting for food. But the strategy behind the alignment of such corridors goes beyond consideration of wildlife and also relates to fitting the infrastructure needs of communities with those of industrial development.

Almost all communities are currently without all-weather road access and depend on diesel generators for electricity. A strategically laid-out long-term plan for all-weather road access to communities is required and, along with it, a multi-purpose energy plan that doesn’t just string transmission lines but utilizes new power generation technologies.

Piecemeal development of single destination corridors is unlikely to serve the long-term best interests of communities or development in the Far North.

And there lies the major failure of the last year in implementing the policies in the Far North Act: the absence – at least to outside observers – of the strategic, big picture planning for the whole of the Far North called for in the Act and to be “prepared by a joint body that is composed in equal numbers of persons who are members of First Nations and persons who are officials of the Government of Ontario.”

Grand Chief Stan Beardy has made it very clear that the First Nation Nishnawbe Aski chiefs oppose Bill 191, but not because of the land-use planning it enables. As the grand chief said in his remarks to the all-party standing committee that held hearings on the proposed Bill, “Nishnawbe Aski chiefs demand a fresh, meaningful government-to-government dialogue based on our treaty-making relationship.” The Nishnawbe Aski chiefs and the government of Ontario each need to take a share of the responsibility for finding a way to establish a dialogue about broad-scale strategic planning for the whole of the Far North that provides high level guidance to the land-use planning underway
in communities.

In my opinion, repealing the Far North Act will not help those who live in the Far North. Many of the Elders remember and talk about ‘yellow birds’ – the government float planes that brought conservation officers to charge them with breaking regulations or, worse, government officials arriving to take their children to residential schools. There is an understandable history of mistrust of government and being caught up in an election campaign will probably not have much appeal. On the other hand, a non-partisan review of the Far North Act that engaged people in the communities and proposed amendments that improved it might be well received.