Get the Ring back on track – Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal (November 26, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

THE ongoing interest of a number of mining concerns in the vast Ring of Fire region is not what holds public attention today. Neither is it the creation of a development corporation to manage the project or negotiations between the province and First Nations. Rather, it is the sense of lost opportunities that comes with the indefinite departure of the mineral belt’s biggest player. There is a growing suspicion that something is wrong and that the province is not saying so.

Viewed in isolation, the government’s announcement of a development corporation to bring the multi-mineral development on line is a good thing. It suggests the province takes seriously the potential for immense economic development in the North and the province as a whole. The timing is another question. Toronto Star Queen’s Park columnist Martin Regg Cohn, syndicated in this newspaper, writes today that it “now looks like an act of desperation in anticipation of the Cliffs pullout.”

The question is what did the government know about Cliffs’ intentions and when. The company has been sending signals of frustration with the long process of securing permission to operate. Its warnings were seen by some as undue impatience until it abandoned $500 million of preparatory spending and closed its Thunder Bay and Toronto offices and its site camp. Renewed interest by the company with an upswing in the commodities market would greatly relieve many people.

Cohn reminds us that the Ring was “front and centre in a throne speech a few years ago.” Despite the size and complexity of considering many mines in remote territory with First Nations, there is a growing sense that over all this time Ontario has not been up to the task of moving the process along.

Now there is a suggestion the federal government may no longer be on board. In a letter released to The Chronicle-Journal and appearing here today, Ontario’s Northern Development and Mines Minister Michael Gravelle tells Greg Rickford, the federal cabinet minister responsible for Northern Ontario development, that he expects him live up to his earlier commitments to the project and expects Ottawa to fulfill its responsibility to First Nations.

Gravelle reminds his regional federal counterpart that Prime Minister Stephen Harper earlier wrote to Premier Kathleen Wynne about “an opportunity to break ground (together) on a model for resource development.” But Gravelle is alarmed at a CBC report that has Harper calling the Ring of Fire “primarily a provincial issue” on the day after Cliffs pulled out.

In the legislature Monday, NDP Leader Andrea Horwath wondered whether Ontario has lived up to an initial agreement it had with Cliffs to process chromite at a new plant near Sudbury. She wants the government to release the agreements it made with Cliffs. Progressive Conservative mines critic Norm Miller said Northern Ontario mining companies have told him they have lost faith in the Liberal government.

Uncertainty has already crept into the Ring of Fire good-news story. With suspicion growing about timing and motives, and a suggestion Ottawa may be backing away, the province has the unenviable but important task of restoring full credibility to a project many feel has not been well managed.

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