Ring of Fire rail plan adds new twist to old debate – by Shawn Bell (Wawatay News – November 7, 2012)

Northern Ontario’s First Nations Voice: http://wawataynews.ca/

Figuring out how to link the proposed Ring of Fire mines to market has been a long standing debate. Whether ore should travel east-west or north-south has been the primary discussion, with stakeholders across the spectrum weighing in on which way is best.

Through it all, the idea of using a railway instead of a road has been kept quietly on the backburner. Now a new coalition of unlikely partners is trying to bring the rail option to the forefront.

In what it calls a New Deal for northern Ontario, a group led by the James Bay Lowlands Ports and Trustee Corporation (JBLPTC) has proposed an ambitious, publically-owned transportation corridor that would tie the Ring of Fire to existing northern Ontario railway lines while taking over control of the Ontario Northern Transportation Company (ONTC) and continuing passenger rail services from James Bay to the south.

The plan is in its early stages. The JBLPTC still needs approval by the federal government under the Canada Marine Act to officially operate as a port. And even if it gets that federal approval, the organization needs Ontario to grant it control over the existing ONTC, while finding financial backing to build a new rail line from Nakina to the Ring of Fire.

But Roy Haines, CEO of the JBLPTC, is optimistic that the plan can not only get off the ground, but that it can succeed in spreading the benefits of the Ring of Fire across a wider group of stakeholders and keep the infrastructure publically-owned.

“(The proposal) seems to have all the right elements, and we certainly believe this infrastructure should be in public hands, not private,” Hains said. “The northern territory should have more of the resource wealth staying in the north rather than shipping it out south. This model, through the port authority, sets out how to keep more of the economic benefit closer to where the communities are.”

The plan has received approval from Mushkegowuk Tribal Council, northern Ontario municipalities and union representing ONTC employees.

“I am very pleased about the opportunity for First Nations people to get involved in the development of the Ring of Fire,” said Leo Friday, Deputy Grand Chief, Mushkegowuk Council in a press release. “We are ready to work together for the benefit of First Nations people. An important part of this will involve training and education so that Aboriginal workers can gain access to the full range of future employment opportunities at Ring of Fire mines.”

Hains said that discussions were held with chiefs of Marten Falls, Webequie and Aroland First Nations and he hoped to reach other Matawa chiefs in the near future.

He also plans to meet with provincial ministers responsible for transportation and northern development and mines in the near future.

Despite the name of the organization spearheading the initiative, the plan does not involve a James Bay port at all. Hains said that being registered as a port authority under the Canada Marine Act is a “perfect vessel” for creating and holding the infrastructure required, as the marine act covers railways, roads and airports needed to get resources to a port.

Hains said that under the proposed plan ore from the Ring of Fire would be shipped by rail to Sudbury or wherever processing will take place.

He argues that connecting the Ring of Fire by rail rather than road makes economic and environmental sense.

“In our case we believe in the long-term advantages of railway,” Hains said. “The province seems to favour a road, but we look at examples around the world and say no, the ore is too heavy and this is unusual terrain, its hard to travel. You’d need an awful lot of trucks, and what happens when one goes off the road or there is a lot of snow? Rail is a much more efficient option.”

In a “perfect” situation where the federal government approved the port authority and the Ontario government transferred ownership of ONTC to the JBPTC in the near future, Hains expects that getting financing to build a railway from Nakina to the Ring of Fire could be completed sometime next year. In his vision construction could start sometime in 2013.