Ontario’s Ring of Fire region could devolve into the “wild west” of resource development, if the province doesn’t immediately make environmental risks a priority, warns the government’s environment watchdog.
“We really only have one chance to get things right in the far north,” Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller said in a speech Thursday after presenting his annual report.
“We’re talking about a really remote facility, but a huge economic opportunity for the province of Ontario.”
Miller skewered the government for its lack of formal environmental monitoring in the far north, despite burgeoning mining activity in the Ring of Fire, which is said to contain as much as $50 billion in resource wealth.
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s report makes two recommendations concerning the region. He calls on the government to conduct immediate and thorough environmental monitoring and to expand the scope of its environmental reviews to include the cumulative impact of a new mining frontier in an untouched region of Canada.
The 5,000 square kilometre crescent-shaped development about 500 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont., contains lucrative stores of gold, copper, nickel, zinc and chromite.
It is in the heart of the largest block of undisturbed boreal forest in the world, home to at-risk species including caribou, wolverine and bald eagles. Its peatlands are large carbon stores, helpful in the fight against climate change.
The far north also comprises the traditional territories of some 38 First Nations communities, including the nine Matawa First Nations communities, which will be most impacted by Ring of Fire activity and which are in negotiations with the provincial government over its development.
Miller said the province lacks a clear environmental plan and has not done enough to study and analyze the effects of development on the land, wildlife and the First Nations who rely on them.
“Where should we put development and where shouldn’t we put development? We don’t know. Is there anybody looking? No.
“Who’s looking at the cumulative effects in the watershed? Who’s looking at the broader impacts? Nobody.”
The province must act now because opportunities and pressures for development in the Ring of Fire and across Ontario’s far north will only increase in the years ahead, he said.
“The planning decisions that the Ontario government makes right now will not only significantly affect how the region functions economically, but will also shape the future state of this globally significant ecosystem.”
An accurate starting point is critical for governments and companies to properly predict and mitigate potential environmental impacts, as well as for the enforcement of environmental laws, the report said.
Miller recommended the province make an immediate statutory commitment to long-term environmental monitoring in the far north, including the Ring of Fire. He added that it is essential that First Nations communities are actively involved and that aboriginal traditional knowledge is incorporated.
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