Inside the First Nations’ fight for a piece of north Ontario’s $60 billion mega mines
Deep in Ontario’s north sits the Ring of Fire, an as-yet undeveloped cluster of mineral claims worth an estimated $60 billion—but only if you’re being conservative. Some industry experts, including James Franklin, former chief geologist with the Geological Survey of Canada, believe an additional $140–$190 billion in economic value exists there from gold deposits alone. For a region with little economy to speak of, the potential for multi-generational mineral riches has been deemed a godsend. Many in the province have called it Ontario’s oilsands, and meant it as a compliment.
Others have dubbed it the new Klondike, a reference to its hoped-for ability to shape the region. In truth, the Ring of Fire has the potential to be the single largest mineral deposit in Canadian history, and could far outstrip the economic and social impact of both iconic Canadian developments.
Yet, the region is also home to many other things besides precious metal buried miles underground. Tucked into the northern boreal forest, the Ring of Fire is primarily First Nations land, full of bogs and fens, roaming caribou herds, stunted tamarack and black spruce trees, all of it growing among thousands of shallow rivers and lakes dotting the landscape. This is the North, and the North is not a quiet place. As Ontario’s headlong rush to develop the Ring of Fire begins now in earnest, it’s about to get louder—just not in the way many might assume. This time, the region’s First Nations leaders don’t want to halt development: They want to make sure they get their share.
To say the Ring of Fire is off the beaten path is an understatement. While the area is home to more than 4,300 on-reserve First Nations residents in nine communities, it doesn’t exist on any map you’ll find save for specialty mining documents. The closest towns and cities are strung out along the concrete ribbon of the Trans-Canada Highway running east-west along the north shore of Lake Superior. Smaller roads branch out in all directions, but even these routes have to end, often well short of remote First Nations communities dependent on winter roads or small aircraft to get in or out.
Instead, you’ll find the Ring of Fire roughly 500 kilometres north-east of Thunder Bay—5,120 square kilometres of northern Ontario’s 450,000 square kilometres of peat, wetlands, and forest. The Ring of Fire is half-way between DeBeer’s Victor diamond mine and Goldcorp’s Musselwhite gold mine, with no way to get miners and equipment in, or valuable resources out.
With few other economic options, mining casts a long shadow in this part of the province, and not all of the history is pleasant. First Nations blockaded the ice road leading to the Victor mine numerous times in early 2013, for instance, because they felt tricked by the impact benefit agreement they signed with the company in 2005. The mine began construction in February 2006 has been in production since summer 2008. Still, few expected the Ring of Fire region to be such a bonanza. After a small group of geologists and junior mining company executives came across small nickel and copper deposits in 2002, further exploration would slowly begin to unveil the expanse of mineral wealth in the region: chromite, nickel, copper, platinum, zinc, gold, and vanadium metals.
Rumour has it an employee of one of those early companies noticed the minerals formed a crescent shape—but not quite a full ring—and, being a Johnny Cash fan, choose the nickname “Ring of Fire” after the Man in Black’s 1963 song. Today, in terms of economic potential, the Ring of Fire discovery ranks second only to deposits found around Sudbury in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Currently, more than 20 companies hold about 9,000 claims in the Ring of Fire area.
It seems almost certain the Ring of Fire will be developed—even its most vocal critics want development slowed to allow for further study, rather than halted completely. The big question is: When? And, perhaps more importantly: Who will profit? The answers depend largely on infrastructure capacities; northern Ontario’s lack of roads, bridges, schools, and other key resources is staggering.
Until recently, the company most likely to help push such huge infrastructure development was Cleveland-based mining giant Cliffs Natural Resources. A few years ago, Cliffs began touting the benefits of an all-weather, north-south road over the competing rail transportation plan of joint venture partner, KWG Resources Inc. The road would connect Cliffs proposed drill site and camp at the Black Thor deposit to Nakina, a town to the south, near the Aroland First Nation.
The Ontario government supported the proposal in principle, and the company hinted it expected provincial taxpayers to heavily subsidize road costs because of the purported benefits for local First Nations, including construction and operations jobs and improved access in and out of communities. Investment hinged on First Nations involvement in specific aspects of resource development—any community building that happened along the way would be a bonus. While Cliffs never stated publicly what it hoped taxpayers would cough up, rumour was Ontario may be on the hook for at least $700 million.
Critics of the road scoffed at the cost, and also Cliffs’ motivation. “This single purpose road would do nothing to improve the social and economic development for First Nation’s communities in the region,” said Brian Kelly, spokesperson for the General Chairperson’s Association, a labour group representing the unionized northern rail workers at the Ontario Crown corporation Northland Transportation, in September 2013.
Kelly’s organization argues the road would be a more expensive and less environmentally responsible alternative to building a rail link to the Ring of Fire, and would provide more employment and commuting opportunities for First Nations. Moreover, “maintenance of the road would be extraordinary,” says veteran mining analyst Stan Sudol. “And who would be responsible for that 30, 50, 60 years of maintenance? Would it be the company, or would it be the province and the taxpayers?”
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