Future Ring of Fire route open to First Nations – by Bryan Phelan (Onotassiniik Magazine – Summer 2013)

Onotassiniik, Wawatay’s Mining Quarterly, sets out to provide knowledge and information about the mining industry in northern Ontario to First Nations communities, individuals and leaders throughout the region.

The provincial government has changed its public position on First Nations access to any future all-weather road to the Ring of Fire. It now asserts that First Nations would have access to such a road.

Last fall, a spokesman for the ministry of Northern Development and Mines told Wawatay News a proposed road linking the Ring of Fire mining development to an existing highway south at Nakina would not connect to First Nations in the region, and residents of those communities would be excluded from using it.

The province would help pay for construction of the 350-kilometre road but it would only be open to industrial users, the MNDM spokesman said, “to go in and get ore and minerals back out.” According to the province’s plan at the time, those companies would use the road on a pay-per-use basis.

First Nations bypassed along the way would include Webequie, Eabametoong, Neskantaga and Marten Falls – all members of Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) and the Matawa First Nations tribal council. “It doesn’t make economic sense, it doesn’t make moral sense and it’s just not going to happen that way,” Les Louttit, NAN deputy grand chief, said in November.

Apparently Louttit was right. MNDM communicated its new position March 15 when again asked about the province’s stance on the issue, after Kathleen Wynne replaced Dalton McGuinty as Ontario premier.

“The current expectation is that the all-season road would be available for use by industrial users and First Nations communities,” wrote Julia Bennett, an MNDM spokeswoman, in an e-mail response to Onotassiniik. “Access fees would be based on proportional road use, although specific terms are yet to be determined. Access fees would apply to industrial/commercial users and not First Nations communities.”

In addition, “Ontario is committed to working with First Nations communities on regional infrastructure planning, which would include consideration of community all-weather access roads,” Bennett said.

As Louttit noted previously, a year-round road link to the south would make important goods and services more affordable and easier to get and for residents of First Nations that now depend on winter roads and air transportation. “It’s a matter of economics, really,” he said.

Meanwhile, a study commissioned by KWG Resources – which through a subsidiary company holds a series a mining claims covering the proposed transportation route – makes the case that it makes more economic sense to build a railroad for future mines in the Ring of Fire. (For details, please see the Stan Sudol column, Ring of Fire: rail or road to transport the mineral riches?, on page 10.) KWG released the study’s findings in February.

“Ministry staff are currently reviewing the study,” said Bennett, on behalf of MNDM. “But that being said, companies looking to do business within the Ring of Fire determine their own transportation preferences as part of their respective business plans, and these are subject to requisite environmental assessments and other processes.”

The Crown also has to determine that its duty to consult has been addressed as part of any development moving forward in the Ring of Fire, Bennett added.

After Premier Wynne met with Matawa chiefs in Toronto, March 6, Chief Eli Moonias of Marten Falls shared the opinion with tbnewswatch.com that it didn’t matter whether a railway or road was built into the Ring of Fire, as long as access roads are built for First Nations use “so we can get out of this isolation.”

Coun. Elsie MacDonald of Webequie said to Onotassiniik in April her community isn’t ready to state its preference for a Ring of Fire transportation corridor. “One of the things as a First Nation we need to do is our own study on what are the many options that are out there for corridors and how it will benefit our community … and let the community decide,” she said.

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