The Ring of Fire is the name given to a massive Northern Ontario chromite-mining project that geologists have called the biggest resource find since the end of the 19th century.
The project would impact numerous First Nations communities and so potential developers are required to negotiate agreement with them prior to development. Bob Rae — the former premier of Ontario and former leader of the federal Liberal party — serves as chief negotiator for the Matawa First Nations Tribal Council, which represents nine First Nations located around the Ring of Fire, roughly 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.
Rae brought his perspective on the project, the impact it will have on First Nations people in the area, and the legal challenges it faces, when he spoke before a group of more than 70 Faculty of Law students at Western University on Thursday (March 20).
“I have actually been doing a lot of speaking to students in just about every university I can, every law school, every mining faculty. I do a lot of talking to people to kind of really explain what is going on, get people engaged, give them a chance to listen and learn,” Rae said. “This generation of lawyers is going to be doing this front and centre so it is important to get them involved.”
While on his speaking tour, Rae said he feels he has been successful in generating a great deal of interest, and discussion, about the Ring of Fire. The lawyers are very much “on the ball,” Rae said, and are aware of what is going on, the challenges that are there.
That also goes for the mining students, engineering students and environmental students he has spoken with.
“It is a part of the province they care about, particularly people going into the mining industry,” Rae said. “I think they understand this is the world of the future, this is the way it is now and they have to understand it better.
Rae said approximately 10,000 people live in the far north and that in Mattawa the population is almost entirely First Nations people. It is a territory that has seen little in the way of extensive mining or forestry development. However, that development is coming after companies discovered the area’s mining potential, and Rae said it will “transform” the region.
The question is, Rae said, how will development in the Ring of Fire impact those First Nations communities and will the results be any different — if at all — than what has happened before.
“The ideal situation would be people realize change is in everybody’s interest, it can work to everybody’s advantage,” Rae said. “Are we going to do exactly what we did in the Sudbury basin back in the 19th century? I think we’d say let’s learn something about the lessons, about environmental regulations, about relationships with First Nations people. Let’s learn about how to do this better.”
During his 35-minute speech, and the 35-minute Q&A session that followed, Rae addressed numerous topics related to the project. If the people of Ontario, First Nations and otherwise, are to have a more prosperous future, Rae said every effort must be made to solve the numerous “human challenges.”
The historic relationship between First Nations and the Crown was another topic that generated lengthy discussion. It was point that brought Rae around to the “broader political challenge” facing a fair outcome to these negotiations — the indifference of the average Canadian.
“The big challenge First Nations people face is it is critical, to make progress, to make these issues part of the mainstream,” Rae said. “I think the concerns First Nations have is to say these issues aren’t going away and are no less severe in areas that aren’t at the centre of resource activity.”
One reason for that indifference could be traced to there being between one and two and a half million First Nations people in Canada out of a population of 36 million.
That point led to a discussion of the Idle No More movement. And while Rae said there is no simple answer to the issues raised by Idle No More, one of the challenges it faces is that at its heart, it is still a protest.
“One of the things you realize in life is it is not all about protest; life is about making decisions and moving things forward,” Rae said. “I think protest is important and where things deserve and require a protest, then a protest is understandable. But you have to move beyond the protest to say how do we actually get things done and implement change.”
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