It would be quite an understatement to say that the Ring of Fire mineral project in northern Ontario is the most significant economic development opportunity for Ontario First Nations the province has ever seen.
The huge chromite mining project, whose importance federal cabinet minister Tony Clement likened to the Alberta’s oilsands, would bring between $60 billion and $120 billion in economic benefits to Ontario, and particularly some of the poorest areas of the province. Clement called it a “once-in-a-life” opportunity to generate long-term prosperity for not only for the First Nations, but the province and the nation. The file has now passed to Clement’s colleague, Minister of State Greg Rickford.
“It has the potential to transform what was hitherto a very poor, underdeveloped area of Ontario and give people who live there, particularly First Nations people, a chance for a decent life,” Clement said in a media interview.
That is why Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne is calling for federal government help to pay for the infrastructure to get the project off the ground. According to Wynne, about $1 billion would be needed for industrial infrastructure, with an additional $1.25 billion for all-season roads needed to connect all Ring of Fire communities. Wynne says Ontario would contribute a fair share of the cost of the infrastructure, but the need is so large, it would need federal matching funds.
Wynne met Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week to discuss the project, and sounded optimistic that the federal government would rise to the challenge. The federal government should respond positively for a number of reasons. First, a U.S. company has already announced a $3.3-billion investment in the project. This is not a request for direct corporate subsidy. Secondly, there is a precedent for the federal government helping pay for important infrastructure. Not too long ago, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced, with some fanfare, $660 million for a subway line in Toronto. Wynne points out that the federal government has also poured more than $500 million into the fossil fuel sector, $130 million to help build a transmission line in B.C. and more than $6 billion in a federal loan guarantee for a hydroelectric project in Labrador. There are numerous other examples where the federal government has spent money in the natural resource area to help major projects go ahead because of their provincial and national significance. We have the word of a senior federal cabinet minister that the Ring of Fire is a major national project, so there is no argument there.
But there is a far more important reason why the federal government should do its part to bring the project to fruition. The remote northern Ontario areas where the project is situated are desolate places of unemployment, poverty and horrible living conditions. Most of the young people, especially the working-age population, have no high school education. The answer to the issues of poverty, drugs and alcohol abuse that haves plagued many First Nation communities can be found in economic opportunity, and this project is one that could do just that. It is crucial that this development be done sustainably, responsibly and in concert with First Nations communities. For the federal government, though, this is a chance to not just talk about First Nations poverty, but actually do something about it.
(Correction: An earlier version mistakenly said Tony Clement was still the federal point man for the Ring of Fire.)
For the original version of this editorial, click here: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/opinion/editorials/Ontario+Ring+Fire+national+opportunity/9270173/story.html