The Ring of Fire and the oilsands – by Shawn Bell (Wawatay News – August 2, 2012)

Northern Ontario’s First Nations Voice:

Ontario’s Conservative leader made an excellent observation a few weeks ago when, after a visit to the Ring of Fire, he said the development is akin to being Ontario’s oilsands.
Tim Hudak took a lot of criticism for the comments. Environmentalists targeted his claims that the Ring of Fire should be developed as quickly as the oilsands. Mining supporters worried about Hudak’s comparison to a development viewed as environmentally devastating. But Hudak was right, and he should be given credit for vocalizing something many are thinking but few are talking about.
The Ring of Fire does have the potential to be Ontario’s oilsands. With hundreds of claims already staked in the region, an estimated $30 billion worth of chromite in the region and countless other mineral deposits alongside of it, the Ring of Fire truly will change northern Ontario forever.
Hudak obviously believes Alberta has done it right when it comes to oilsands development.  “Sometimes we look (with) wonder and awe at what Alberta can do,” he said, following the visit. “We can do that in Ontario and we can do that with the Ring of Fire.”
Of course, the part of the comparison between the Ring of Fire and the oilsands that Hudak overlooked is a pretty big consideration too.
I lived for three years in Fort Smith, Northwest Territories. The community was built on the Slave River, which originates from the Athabasca River. The Athabasca River runs past Fort McMurray, through the heart of the oilsands, then on to Fort Chipewyan and north to the NWT border.
During those years I spent a lot of time in Fort Chipewyan. It is a lovely little community, half Dene, half Cree, on the shores of Lake Athabasca and just kilometres from the Peace Athabasca Delta, the largest freshwater delta on the continent.
Fort Chipewyan is a bountiful place, where there have always been abundant animals, fish and plants for harvesting.

In the 1990s, however, some of that bounty started to change. Elders described the old days when the skies would be dark with waterfowl during the migration seasons. All of a sudden the community was lucky to see a hundred ducks a year.
It wasn’t just the birds. According to Elders the fish started to taste differently.

Abnormalities started showing up in their catches. And eventually even the water of the big lake was no longer drinkable.
Over the past few years, scientists have begun to verify the concerns that Elders have been expressing for decades. A number of studies have found pollutants in the water, fish and animals that appear to come from the oilsands.
The response from the federal and Alberta governments has been to establish new environmental monitoring regimes. Alberta calls its new system “world class.” But no matter how good a monitoring system is set up, oilsands development is 40 years in. There is no environmental baseline to compare today’s data to. Scientists are starting from scratch, and communities have no choice but to deal with the changes the best they can.
Chief Eli Moonias of Marten Falls First Nation told reporters during a recent media tour that he does not want to see the Albany River polluted like the Athabasca River was. Members in communities along the James Bay coast have expressed similar concerns. First Nations, like Hudak, are seeing the similarity between the Ring of Fire and the oilsands. But for many First Nations people, the comparison does not have the appeal it does for Hudak. For many people living in the North, the thought of northern Ontario in 40 years is downright scary.
If Ontario really wants to learn from Alberta’s example, as Hudak rightly suggested, there are a few things the western province failed to do that serve as good lessons. The first, and perhaps most important, is establishing a solid environmental baseline study before development starts and setting up a ‘world class’ monitoring system right away. Alberta waited 40 years to think of doing that work, and while the government plays catch up, First Nations downstream deal with major health and environmental problems.
The second lesson is to create a long-term plan for development of the resource. Alberta left planning up to the companies involved. The result has been a series of boom and busts, Fort McMurray’s rapid, unsustainable population increase and an industry grown so large, so fast that regulating it has become nearly impossible.

If Ontario does start to think of the Ring of Fire as its own version of the oilsands, it would be prudent to ask what it wants the development to look like in 40 years. The Alberta example, of First Nations travelling around the world with a message that tar sands equals bloody oil, is not exactly desirable. If that situation is going to be avoided here, now is the time to do it.
For that matter, Ontario should involve First Nations right away in creating its long-term plan for the development. Not only would the province benefit from the local knowledge that the communities hold, but involving First Nations at that level would go a long way in getting Aboriginal partners instead of Aboriginal opponents in the Ring of Fire.