Igniting the [Ontario] Ring of Fire – by Harold Wilson (Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce President – July, 2011)

The progress towards development of the chromite deposit, now well established as “The Ring of Fire” north of Marten Falls, has been one of intense debate, considerable study, and much hope.  I attended a conference two weeks ago that was to focus on how this regional opportunity could be moved along, particularly the considerable infrastructure required. 

There were many excellent panels and presenters, the highlight for many being Thursday morning’s panel featuring William Boor of Cliffs Natural Resources, Paul Semple representing Noront Resources and our 2010 Chamber AGM speaker, Frank Smeenk from KWG Resources. 

All three panelists presented compelling rationales for their top choice of a transportation corridor.  While some attendees thought the three scenarios indicated discord, they were actually stating their preferred case but were prepared to accept one solution, provided it would be cost effective and expedited.  The main issue was for the Province to help “get on with it”. 

This refrain was repeated often the week before at the unfortunately aptly titled “Think North II” event; a solid course of action was what the business community has clamoured for, not another rehash of issues.  Increasing the decision making capability in the Northwest, and the transfer of authority should have been the main topics of discussion. 
There are many resource development opportunities, some which are sizable, within close proximity and require minimal infrastructure, such as the Bending Lake Iron Group’s project between Atikokan and Ignace.  What it mainly requires is Provincial readiness to support resource development; one would have assumed that the Province’s debt load would have been adequate incentive.

In fact, while the private sector and First Nations were well represented at the Ring of Fire Conference, ready to work together, the absence of key Provincial decision makers was very much a missed opportunity. 
Although led by key officials at the Ministry Of Northern Development, Mines & Forestry, including Minister Gravelle, absent were senior Deputy Ministers from Finance, Energy, Infrastructure and especially the Premier’s office.  In the discussion on Public Private Partnerships to support infrastructure, a main question was: what does the ‘Public’, ie the Provincial Government, want and what are they prepared to do to make this happen?  We are looking for tangible steps towards realizing the economic development that comes with resource development. 

As for tangible steps, one which demonstrated solid forward progress was the July 5 announcement at PACI that after years of collective effort and a major community-wide push over the past two months, the Faculty of Law at Lakehead University has now been approved by the Province, the first approved in over 40 years.

Terry Waboose, Deputy Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, in his remarks at the podium directly linked the announcement to the development of the Ring of Fire.  First Nations are looking to maximize the benefits of resource development for their communities.  Enhancing the capacity is a priority, and the law school that has a concentration on natural resource concerns is a significant step.  There are many more opportunities and challenges. 

As the Voice of Business, your Chamber has been active in these strategic gatherings, providing vocal support or constructive criticism, as circumstances dictate.  It is only by collective pursuit of these key initiatives that will help us make the economic leap from ‘great potential’ to ‘solid reality’.