Far North mischief – by Stan Sudol (National Post – December 7, 2011)

The National Post is Canada’s second largest national paper.

Is Ontario’s Far North Act anti-aboriginal?

De Beers Canada and its Victor diamond mine is currently in the media spotlight regarding the poverty in the nearby First Nations community of Attawapiskat. Many are questioning why the community is not significantly benefiting from this diamond mine, located on its traditional territory. The Victor deposit — which is the smallest of Canada’s four diamond mines — just started production in July 2008 and has an expected life of 11 years. The mine employs about 500 people, half of whom are of First Nations background and 100 come from Attawapiskat.

This controversy highlights the widespread problem of aboriginal poverty, much of which lies at the feet of Premier Dalton McGuinty, environmentalism and the product of this marriage — the much-detested Far North Act. Praised by the south’s many well-funded and powerful environmental movements, this legislation cuts off half of the Far North to resource development — 225,000 square kilometres or roughly 21% of the province’s land mass — and turns it into parks.

The horrific downside to this green ideology is that mineral exploration and potential mines — the only form of economic development that could reduce the impoverished, Third World living conditions in First Nations communities — is being reduced or stopped in the affected territory.

A generation ago, the destruction of the fur industry in northern aboriginal communities by an aggressive, media-savvy environmental movement caused enormous economic hardships and contributed many social ills. Are McGuinty and his environmental allies doing the same with their parks agenda? Is the Far North Act inherently “anti-aboriginal”?

For the geographically illiterate, let’s be crystal clear about how much land is being affected by the act. The total land area of the province is 907,573 square kilometers. Southern Ontario is 102,326 square kilometers. Double that territory and then some and you will get a good idea of how much land will be off limits to low-impact mining exploration and potential sustainable development.

By comparison, the trillion-dollar Sudbury Basin, which has been in economic production for over 120 years, is an oval-shaped basin measuring only 60 by 30 kilometres. We still have no idea of the geological potential of the Far North and at the present time there are no plans or enough money to do a thorough geo-science assessment of that vast geography.

What if the north contains another Sudbury Basin, the richest mining district in North America, or another Abitibi Greenstone Belt, the source of Canada’s greatest gold mining districts or another Ring of Fire whose mineral treasures we have just begun to discover? This economic madness comes at a time of global economic uncertainty, massive provincial deficits and fears about significant cutbacks to unsustainable social programs and services. Once proud Ontario is now a have-not province, receiving $2.2-billion in equalization payments during fiscal 2011-2012.

“The uncertainty of land tenure in the Far North Act has made it difficult for prospecting companies in Vancouver and Toronto to raise funds for development,” said Harold Wilson, Thunder Bay Chamber of Commerce president. “This excitement over the mineral-rich Ring of Fire would likely not be happening if the Far North Act was in effect eight years ago.”

Due to massive industrialization and urbanization in China, India and many other developing countries, there is a ravenous global appetite for mineral products — a commodity super-cycle. Every year, China builds two cities the size of Toronto and Sydney, Australia, in the largest rural-urban migration in the history of man.

With one high-profile exception, the vast majority of aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario welcome the benefits and jobs from mining. In fact, there are almost 200 types of economic partnership agreements between First Nations and senior miners or junior exploration companies across Canada and about 90 of those accords are in the province’s North.

At an June, 2011 International Indigenous Summit on Energy and Mining in Niagara Falls, Ont., Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo said, “This is truly an exciting time for indigenous peoples in Canada and around the world.… We see the opportunities in resource development as a key to unlock the full potential of indigenous peoples across the globe in ways that are responsible, sustainable and mutually beneficial to all parties.”

The mining industry is the largest private-sector employer of aboriginal people in the country, making up about 7.5% of the workforce. According to a June, 2011 study from TD Economics, the “aboriginal population has been beneficiaries of the booms in the resource sector since the past decade.”

Last summer, a visit by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to Agnico-Eagle’s Meadowbank gold mine near Baker Lake, Nunavut highlighted the enormous benefits of mining for the local Inuit. Approximately 38% of the 1,100 employed are Inuit from the Kivalliq Region. Agnico-Eagle has implemented extensive internal training programs to help Inuit advance in the workforce by learning new skills. Last year, almost 48% or $57-million of Meadowbank mining expenditures went to Nunavut based suppliers. And royalties will be flowing to the Inuit through their umbrella organization, the Nunavut Iunngavik Inc.

A February 2011 study on the north by the Conference Board of Canada reported that the gross domestic product of Nunavut increase almost 12%, largely due to the economic impact of the Meadowbank mine.

For the rest of this column, please go to the National Post/Financial Post website: http://opinion.financialpost.com/2011/12/06/far-north-mischief/