Staking Claim: Ontario’s Ring Of Fire Brings Opportunity And Fears To First Nations – by Sunny Freeman (Huffington Post – September 23, 2013)

Staking Claim is a multi-part series exploring the proposed Ring of Fire mining development in Ontario and how the First Nations communities are preparing for economic activity and the environmental and societal consequences of Canada’s next resource rush.

BETWEEN LONG LAKE No. 58 AND LONGLAC, Ont. — Along this desolate stretch of Northern Ontario highway, an idyllic white chapel is perched on the point of a peninsula next to to a “No Swimming” sign wedged into the poisoned shoreline that juts into glistening Long Lake.

On the opposite side of the Trans-Canada Highway, a downtrodden young man, a filled plastic garbage bag slung over each shoulder, saunters past a long-idle train toward the swampy lowland of the Long Lake No. 58 First Nations reserve.

There are no job opportunities where he is headed and no businesses, save for a single band-owned gas bar. Dilapidated box houses, many boarded and abandoned, line the three roads that form the reserve.

Two kilometres east is Longlac, the self-proclaimed “Gateway to Northwestern Ontario” and last stop for eastbound travellers — 14 hours from Toronto — in search of a coffee shop or motel ahead of a 200-kilometre stretch of uninhabited land.

Aside from travellers, the most dependable customers in this town of 1,400 are from the neighbouring reserve, who come to Longlac to for groceries (Valu-Mart), to get their car fixed (Longlac Auto Centre) or lunch (Longlac Pizzeria). Money flows into the town from the reserve’s residents, who have few ways to spend in their own community.

For generations the reserve — its uninspired name assigned by the federal government — has been the poorer neighbour to Longlac, a community settled by French fur traders. The reserve’s present has been clouded by the pain of the past and struggles with poverty, addiction and suicide.

But now the reserve, known to locals as “58,” sits on the precipice of a new era of economic development that could include and benefit — rather than ignore and destroy — aboriginal communities. It is one of the nine Matawa First Nations communities surrounding the Ring of Fire — a $50-billion deposit of minerals discovered by a Johnny Cash-loving prospector. Dubbed “Canada’s next oilsands,” it’s the biggest resource development Ontario has seen in more than a century.

Yet No. 58 and the other communities are not sold on the promises from government and mining companies that development will not come at the expense of their land or their traditional way of life.

Long Lake itself is a perpetual reminder of the high price of development. Its shores are poisoned in part by chromium in rocks from a nearby mine used as filler material; it’s the same metal that mining companies want to dig out of the ground and transport through aboriginal lands in search of massive profits.

No. 58 resident Louis Wesley remembers when he was a teenager and four trains — two from the east and two from the west — chugged by daily along the Canadian National track on the northern tip of Long Lake, a 160-kilometre narrow body of water in the Canadian Shield.

For a time, there was hope the route would bring prosperity and include No. 58 in the burgeoning regional economy. Now the community elder only sees a train three times a week.

“It was much bigger when I was young, eh? The town was booming,” Wesley,67, says between pulls on the straw of an apple juice box while he sits at a picnic table outside No. 58’s community centre.

“There was a lot of people here, but some of them moved away. No jobs, eh?”

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