Ring of Fire – Good timing, good politics (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal Editorial – April 29, 2014)

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

THE timing of Monday’s provincial offer of $1 billion to access the Ring of Fire just three days before the budget is entirely political, of course.

It could have come months ago. Instead it is designed for maximum leverage against opposition parties who will be accused by the Liberals of blocking Northern economic development if they vote against Thursday’s budget.

The Liberals will say they’ve been trying to get Ottawa to agree to partner in building an essential transportation corridor into the mineral-rich region around James Bay.

It took regional cabinet ministers Michael Gravelle for Ontario and Ottawa’s Greg Rickford months to agree to a meeting and not much came out of it except to agree to the obvious — that this is a remarkable economic opportunity that must not be passed up.

Here, too, Ontario’s political initiative Monday is timely, coinciding with the resumption of Parliament where the governing Conservatives remain intent on jobs and prosperity that are in relatively short supply in Northern Ontario. The message is clear: if you’re serious, match our offer.

Rickford has said Ontario can apply through the new Building Canada fund. But Ontario doesn’t want to stand in line, nor should it. This is a development that requires commitment.

Liberals are also aware that announcing their proposal earlier, during delicate negotiations with First Nations in the area, might have been seen as provocative. With a memorandum of understanding in hand with the Matawa group representing First Nations in the region, the timing of the Ring road proposal fits.

The potential of the Ring of Fire multi-minerals development to transform the economies of northern First Nations and municipalities is immense. The Liberals have been accused, with some legitimacy, of being too slow to act on the opportunity. But pleasing First Nations with resource development is never easy and getting some on board has taken immense effort and involvement of a former premier and a retired Supreme Court justice to bridge the gap to the degree that’s been possible to date.

Nor could the Liberals control the mining market which weakened just as excitement about the Ring of Fire was building and communities across the North bid for involvement. The biggest player, Cliffs Natural Resources, suspended operations during the market downturn and also blamed the slow pace of approvals needed for it to continue beyond exploration.

Other players remain on board but no one can proceed without a road between the mining region and rail and road infrastructure to the south. Communications and power development must also be built.

Ontario’s Tories and New Democrats had little good to say about Monday’s proposal from the Liberal government. But it’s a gutsy move to challenge Ottawa to match a billion-dollar commitment for a development it has called important on the day that it did. If it produces matching funds, it will also be seen to have been smart.

 

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